Covid-19 and the digital divide

Written by Ubayd Khan, GLOBUS Correspondent

The coronavirus pandemic has perpetuated a digital boom, especially in education. With the government previously encouraging people to work from home, students have had to learn from home as not to fall behind in their studies. However, with many educational institutions moving to teach online for the foreseeable future, what does this mean for people with an unstable internet connection or the people with no internet access at all? 

The Sustainable Development Goals include an indicator for the proportion of individuals who have used the internet in the last three months (Indicator 17.8.1) showing internet access has been a global issue even before the pandemic. Politicians have been getting involved such as in November 2019, where then leader of the Labour party Jeremy Corbyn, planned to nationalise part of BT and provide free broadband across the UK. However, no successful nationwide campaign has been put in place to improve internet access – only for us to pay the price later in full.

As soon as the pandemic hit, teachers across the country had to learn to use online platforms in order to teach their classes. As of 14 June, use of Microsoft Teams grew by 894% compared with its base usage during the week of 17 February.  This shows the huge increase in the usage of platforms such as Microsoft Teams for online education. This boom has created a reliance on a stable internet connection to access online classes, but many students are being left behind, with the poorest being hit the hardest. 

The probability of having internet access at home increases with household income. Only 51% of households with an income between £6000-£10,000 have internet access while 99% of households with an income of over £40,000 do. Even regardless of internet access, many children living in poverty are disproportionately at a disadvantage when compared to their better-off counterparts. Only 25% of children eligible for free school meals or those who have been in care or have been adopted from care achieved grades 9-5 in GCSE English and Maths in 2019, in comparison to 50% of all other students. 

Now that these same students are often learning from home due to self-isolation or other reasons- this educational gap is sure to widen. The issue of the digital divide expands to the US. An interview with Kurt Peluso on NJTV News (2016) describes children ordering French fries of the menu at McDonald’s as it is the cheapest item, then sitting in the parking lot doing their homework. So many children rely on the four walls of a school for their education- and as soon as those walls are taken away, they struggle. 

The digital divide is not only about access to the internet. Even with a stable internet connection, many students may not have the devices to be able to study from home. 40% of 16-24-year olds don’t have a laptop, which has become near essential for studying from home. 

All is not lost though, as there are measures that can be made to mitigate the problem of this digital divide. There are many educational resources and ideas for home learning on the website. Printing these and giving them to families who may be struggling on how to access online resources could help. Along with keeping in touch with families and students via phone calls or text messages to make sure they do not miss anything important. 

There is also a degree of irony to this article, with it being published as an online publication. The pandemic has already changed the way many teachers and students interact, and it looks like it will have a lasting impact on the way they communicate. Unless the digital divide is addressed, millions of the poorest people in the UK will be yet again left behind in the post-COVID world. 

You can find more information about internet access in America (before COVID-19) through the Netflix show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj entitled ‘Why Your Internet Sucks’ and the full episode is also on YouTube –

Header image at Unsplash by Ales Nesetril 

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