The Digital Divide in Virtual Education

The crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the educational process for millions of children. Distance education through online media has become standard practice in many societies since March 2020 (UNESCO 2020). While schools are slowly reopening in many countries, and despite the best efforts of schools and teachers to cope with the immediate change of life, the coronavirus crisis is likely to continue to affect the educational process for some time to come.

Which children are well prepared for online education?

One question that immediately arises is how school closures will affect sociodemographic inequalities in educational progress. For distance education to work you need a good place to study with digital equipment, sufficient digital expertise and skills, involved parents, as well as well-prepared schools and teachers – and these circumstances are likely to be socially stratified.

While we cannot yet know how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact inequalities in educational outcomes, we can already examine pre-existing inequalities in children’s readiness for this immediate shift to online education. Who is digitally ready and who is not? What digital resources do children have and what do they lack? Addressing these questions can inform future study of educational inequities resulting from the pandemic, as well as policymakers’ actions to facilitate the transition to (and from) online education.

What was the situation just before the pandemic?

To assess students’ readiness for online learning and whether this readiness varies according to their socio-demographic characteristics (socioeconomic background, migration background, gender), we analyzed data on students, schools and teachers collected in 2018 under two international surveys programs: the OECD Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS) and the International Computer Literacy and Information Literacy and Information Management Study (ICILS).

It is important to emphasize that we consider both the readiness of individual students to cope with online education and the readiness of their schools. Both are necessary: the smooth functioning of the transition to online schooling for a student depends not only on his or her personal access to ICT (information and communication technologies), experience and skills, but also on that of his or her schools and teachers. Thus, a “digital divide” in online education can arise from both inequalities in students’ individual ICT resources and inequalities in the ICT provision of the schools they attend.

Schools differ in their readiness for online learning.

Looking first at the digital readiness of the schools that students attend – i.e., that they have competent and experienced ICT teachers – it is clear that there are substantial differences in that level of readiness. However, these differences are not related to the socioeconomic and migration background of the student population.

In the Netherlands, for example, the ICT skills of teachers in some schools are considerably higher than those of teachers in other schools. Interestingly, schools vary in the extent to which teachers have recently attended an ICT-related professional development activity, the frequency with which teachers let students use ICT for class work, and the extent to which teachers use ICT to support student learning. In contrast, there are hardly any differences between schools in the extent to which teachers are trained in ICT during their initial training.

Thus, schools in the Netherlands differ mainly in the extent to which teachers continuously update and use their ICT knowledge in the classroom. However, whether teachers do so is not related to the socioeconomic and migration background of the students. As shown in Figure 2, teachers in schools with more than 60% of students from socioeconomically or migratory disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be neither significantly more nor less digitally literate than teachers in schools without disadvantaged students.

Comparing internationally the distributions of teachers’ digital skills, there are relatively large school differences in teachers’ digital proficiency in the Netherlands. However, as in the Netherlands, we also observe in other countries that differences between schools can hardly be explained by the sociodemographic background of students.

The importance of students’ socioeconomic status and migration backgrounds

The fact that the socio-demographic composition of the student body is not related to the digital readiness of schools does not mean, however, that a student’s readiness for online education is not socially stratified. In Denmark, for example, the situation is comparable to the Netherlands in the sense that the ICT skills of a student’s teachers do not depend on their social status.

Likewise, the ICT infrastructure (i.e., technological and software resources) possessed by a student’s school is not related to the student’s sociodemographic background. In contrast, a student’s personal skills in using ICT effectively are strongly related to his or her background: students from advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds have more digital skills than students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, students without an immigrant background are more skilled than students with an immigrant background, and girls are more skilled than boys.

Although of considerable magnitude, the Danish digital divide in terms of students’ digital skills is even relatively modest in an international comparison. For example, the digital divide based on social class is much larger in Chile, and within Western Europe, digital divides based on social class, migration and gender are considerably larger in France than in Denmark.

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