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The digital divide in a new normal



Among the innumerable ways the COVID-19 pandemic has changed modern life is the accelerated shift of work, education and services to the online space. Now, 12 months into the ‘new normal’ of pandemic life, we’re accustomed to whipping out our phones to snap a QR code before entering a venue and Zoom calls have become a standard feature of the workday.

Illustration Chris Johnston

For those of us who already regularly shopped, banked, studied and worked via the Internet, it was easy to adapt to telehealth appointments with doctors and video calls with friends and family.

Of course, these activities require access to the Internet — something 2.5 million Australians are without. A further 4 million access the Internet solely using a mobile connection. For these citizens, the pandemic exacerbated the existing digital divide.

Since 2016, the Australian Digital Inclusion Index has measured the nation’s digital divide using access, affordability and ability as metrics. The 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, which measures to March 2020, catches the beginning of the pandemic and the introduction of strict physical distancing regulations but ‘does not fully reflect the effects of the pandemic on Australians’ digital inclusion.’

Still, in 2020, as in previous years, the report found that ‘Australians with lower levels of income, employment, and education are significantly less digitally included’ which created ‘a substantial digital divide between richer and poorer Australians.’

The report shows that while Australia’s overall digital inclusion score increased 1.1 points to 63, the considerable gap between rich and poor remains stubbornly unchanged. Thirty points separate the lowest income households (43.8) and the highest (73.8), a gap that has remained consistent since the first report was issued in 2016.

This digital divide took on increased significance in the nation’s classrooms in the face of school closures, particularly in Victoria, where the population endured an extended lockdown from July until October.


'In a pandemic new normal, extra resources must be directed to vulnerable groups to close the digital divide.'


Disadvantage is already a very real presence in Australia’s education system. According to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, ‘the average 15-year-old Australian from a low socio-economic background is 3 years behind their peers from a high socio-economic background in mathematics and science.’

While experts say it’s too early to gain a clear picture of the lockdown’s effect on students, there is emerging evidence of off-site learning’s adverse effects on students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Approximately 800,000 of Australia’s primary and secondary students — 20 per cent of the total cohort — are from households in the lowest income bracket, a group whose digital inclusion index score is 10.1 points lower than the national average. ‘Unless provided immediate and significant support, these 800,000 students are less likely than their counterparts to return to a successful educational pathway,’ the ADII 2020 report states.

A University of Melbourne survey carried out between April and June found that ‘teachers identified that student access to devices was a key issue, and that some were using only their phone to access online learning.’

Predictably, student performance slipped. The survey found that 53 per cent of primary teachers reporting that the work standard during the remote learning period was not at the same standard as face-to face-teaching. One secondary teacher stated that while some students produced better work during the school closure, other ‘already disengaged students have become even less connected to school and school work.’

Attendance was another issue. According to the survey, 16 per cent of all primary and secondary teachers reported that their students attended online classes at the designated times only half the time. Three out of four teachers surveyed registered their concern that the social and emotional wellbeing of students would be negatively affected by remote learning. One teacher said, ‘good teaching will soon fill any gaps created by online teaching…[but] It is the social-emotional wellbeing of our young people, particularly those at risk in their homes, that is my biggest concern.’

Also unduly impacted by digital inequity are students from culturally and linguistically diverse migrant and/or refugee (CALDM/R) backgrounds. A report looking at the experience of these students quotes Alfred, a support worker for refugees and new communities at Western Sydney University, who said that the students he worked with felt overwhelmed, unsupported and concerned whether they will finish their degrees:

‘Some experienced a lot of conflicts with their family members because they had to take turns on using internet and the one or two computers available for the entire household. One student got stressed when she was sitting her exam because her mother was speaking in the background.’

Students with a disability faced extra challenges as learning went online. A report released in July 2020 found that ‘only 22 per cent of family members and carers of students with a disability agreed they had received adequate educational support during the pandemic’ and ‘more than half of respondents said the curriculum and learning materials didn’t come in accessible formats. Parents reported having to do significant work to translate learning materials into a useful format for their children.’

As the ADII 2020 notes, connectivity cushioned the impact of physical distancing measures implemented in different degrees since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us replaced in-person get-togethers with online messaging and video calls, a trend supported by internet usage data which showed that evening upstream NBN traffic increased by more than 35 per cent after physical distancing measures were introduced.

For Australia’s most digitally excluded age group, those aged 65 and over, no such avenue providing social contact was available due to a lack of access, affordability or ability — or a combination of all three.

This enforced social isolation, necessary as it might be, has serious consequences. Neurologist Kate Ahmad, writing in Crikey in October 2020, describes the heartbreaking decline she has witnessed in many of her elderly patients since the start of the pandemic. ‘Pandemic lockdowns may not cause dementia, but they certainly seem to contribute to accelerated progression,’ she writes. ‘Adequate mental functioning becomes inadequate once society throws in loneliness, isolation from family and friends, decreased movement and loss of challenging activities like driving and shopping.

‘It’s not a decline which will recover.’

This is not an exhaustive list of everyone who has been disadvantaged by Australia’s digital exclusion during the pandemic — digital inclusion remains an issue for Indigenous and rural Australians as well as the groups mentioned — but highlights how some have borne more than their fair share of the pandemic’s high costs. In this new normal, extra resources must be directed to vulnerable groups to close the digital divide.



Nicola HeathNicola Heath is a freelance journalist who writes about the workplace, social affairs, sustainability, and the arts and entertainment. She tweets at @nicoheath.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Nicola Heath, digital divide, COVID-19



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Existing comments

OK Nicola, I don't dispute any of what you say, but what's the solution ? The causes that you enumerate are not peculiar to the COVID restrictions, only heightened by them. IT hardware costs money, but we're not into raising the income of the poor or making their jobs more secure because that might be detrimental to 'the economy'. It's not intended that the NBN deliver the same quality service to all consumers because that would be too expensive. RSPs exist to make a profit from service delivery, not to deliver service equitably. Commonwealth (now there's a misnomer) funding for schools goes to the wealthy ones, not the ones who need it most. (The Catholic system even compounds this further). Efforts to improve the digital literacy of the aged have, I suspect, been half-hearted and mainly 'feel-good' programs. I could go on, but I think you can get the drift of what I'm asking. Some of our 'leaders' will shrug their shoulders and talk about 'the Australian way', 'a fair go for those who have a go', while thinking to themselves that 'the poor are always with us' without asking themselves 'why?'.

Ginger Meggs | 23 February 2021  

I have seen a piece written by a NY state school superintendent that argued eloquently that when students came to class their teachers should not move into catch-up mode. Instead he encouraged them to do emotional and psychological work: art, writing and other activities. First kids need to process and recover; then assess gaps.

Marianne McLean | 24 February 2021  

Not covered are actions by government and business to reduce staff by attempts to confine their communications to email . Letters are often ignored even when important matters are sent by registered post. Centrelink are notorious. Telephone communications are discouraged by various means and websites are restricted to chat pre-programmed answers. We seem to heading towards another tower of babel and it is likely many people [ especially the elderly and probably some more intelligent people in communicating ] are giving up out of frustration

kevinryan | 24 February 2021  

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