Levelling the digital playing field in Australia’s schools

Levelling the digital playing field in Australia’s schools

There are calls for a new national strategy to help bridge the digital divide for Australia’s disadvantaged students, with new research highlighting the impact that this issue has on young peoples’ learning.

A new report prepared pro-bono by KPMG on behalf of not-for-profit organisation WorkVentures found an alarming 84% of students with inadequate access to a computer had trouble finishing class work and assignments.

This is representative of two in five (44%) Year 6 students and a quarter (25%) of Year 10 students in Australia who do not have access to a computer outside of school.

“Australia is undergoing a rapid digital transformation but despite increased connectivity, socially and financially disadvantaged families have found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide due to affordability and confidence barriers,” Jacob Muller, Director, IT Solutions & Social Impact at WorkVentures said.

“Our report found that students, who are from schools in areas that identified as having greater relative socio-economic disadvantage, experienced reduced or no access to a computer after school.”

Muller said this reduced access outside of school is likely to have a negative impact on the educational outcomes for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The report found while laptop computers were commonly provided by the school (57% for Year 6 students) as they progressed their education, just 32% of Year 10 students were provided with a device by their school.

Covid exacerbated ‘digital poverty’

While the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the need for internet access, the sudden transition to services online left many families more digitally excluded than ever, as Professor Michael Dezuanni, Associate Director of the Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) Digital Media Research Centre, pointed out.

“For many Australian families, digital poverty is a daily reality.”

In November 2022, a QUT-led project found that while some families are investing in technology to ensure their children are not disadvantaged, cost-of-living pressures mean they are cutting out other essentials to do so.

Based on in-depth interviews, the researchers found that many students in low-income families do not have the internet and device access they need to successfully complete their school work, making it more likely they will fall behind in their learning.

“Even where they do have internet access, this is often restricted by inadequate access to data. The findings highlight a critical need for greater coordination of services – including across schools, libraries, and support agencies – to enable all families to thrive in the digital age,” he said.

“As well as access to education, digital and data poverty impacts negatively on parenting, social participation, and employment.”

‘National Device Bank’ needed to boost digital inclusion

As Term 1 approaches, WorkVentures is urging the introduction of a ‘National Device Bank’ to aid digitally excluded Australians by providing free digital devices.

“We want to ensure all children have access to digital learning essentials so they can make the most of their education and not miss out due to their individual circumstances,” Caroline McDaid, Chief Executive Officer of WorkVentures, said.

Over a five-year period, the Australian public and corporate sector will refresh ten million laptops, PCs, and tablets. Currently, most of these devices are diverted into international markets for profit or disposed of (recycled or sent to landfill).

“While we have had some Australian companies and government agencies donating devices for social good for a number of years, there is substantial scope to amplify this across the corporate and public sector landscape,” McDaid said.

“We want to see a system where these devices are kept in Australia and redistributed for free to people who are digitally excluded.”

‘The need to be digitally included is greater than ever before’

The Smith Family CEO Doug Taylor is another leader calling for a new national strategy to address the digital divide in Australia’s schools.

“We still haven’t solved the hardware issues, connectivity is still a problem for many people, and yet the need to be digitally included is greater than ever before,” Taylor said.

“I worry that if we don’t address this issue now, the challenges that lie ahead will become harder to resolve as we face an ongoing tidal wave of change and the complexities compound.”

However, Taylor said he “takes heart in the fact that we’re starting to see a shift in public consciousness.”

“People are starting to realise that digital inclusion is fundamental to be part of our society today – for children at school, for adults at work, and for all of us to live our daily lives,” he said.

“But we must act now to ensure all Australians can engage safely and effectively with the digital world, or run the risk of perpetuating inequality for generations to come.”