Lack of skills holds back digital learning, affecting both students and teachers

New Delhi: Oxford University Press (OUP), the world’s largest university press, has today published a new global report exploring the digital divide in education, following the shift to digital learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report, Addressing the Deepening Digital Divide, captures the views of 1,557 school and English language teachers from 92 countries—including India—on the digital divide, including the barriers to effective teaching and learning, and the impact of the divide on learners’ development. Based on the insights gathered, the report puts forward recommendations for policymakers and educators to future-proof the education system and narrow a divide that unfairly disadvantages millions of learners all over the world.

Key findings from report include:

  • Limited digital skills are nearly as great a problem as access to technology: poor digital access (i.e. physical access to the internet or a device) was the biggest barrier to digital learning, cited by 68 per cent of teachers as a problem. A lack of digital competency ranked a close second, with 56 per cent of respondents reporting that teachers and learners alike lacked the skills to make digital learning a success.
  • Engaging students in online lessons was a bigger challenge than costs, education funding, or digital infrastructure: teachers felt their greatest challenge during the pandemic was engaging students in online lessons—a difficulty reported by six in ten teachers (61 per cent).
  • Disadvantaged students have been significantly affected by the shift to digital learning: 70 per cent of teachers said the most disadvantaged students lost learning due to limited or no access to digital devices. 44 per cent of respondents felt that the wellbeing of disadvantaged students had been particularly negatively affected during the pandemic.
  • Teachers want parents to play a bigger role in their child’s digital learning: half of the teachers surveyed (50 per cent) said a lack of parental understanding of digital tools/platforms limited the effectiveness of support available to their children; and 58 per cent said disadvantaged students tended to receive less educational support from their parents and families.

OUP has made the following recommendations to address the deepening digital divide:

  • A greater focus on independent learning: students who take an active role in their learning will be more engaged in their education, leading to better outcomes. Independent learning gives students valuable screen-free time and removes some of the pressures disadvantaged students feel to be online for a full day when struggling with poor internet connection, limited access to a device, or high data costs.
  • Build digital competency skills among educators, students, and parents: OUP’s report reveals that a lack of digital competency among teachers, students and their parents is holding back digital learning to a worrying degree. A move from sporadic ‘upskilling’ to ‘always-skilling’, in which teachers have regular training touchpoints, will ensure that digital knowledge does not become outdated.
  • Target resources to address both ends of the digital divide: the report urges governments around the world to prioritize investments that support affordable access to reliable internet connections and devices. Governments should actively collaborate with teachers and students and use their recent experiences to inform future policy and curriculum development: with a focus on free resources to address the skills gap, and on wellbeing and mental health.

Nigel Portwood, CEO of Oxford University Press said: ‘The world of education continues to undergo significant digital transformation, and yet so many learners are being left behind because of the digital divide. And as our research shows, it isn’t just about ensuring people have access to the relevant devices, or improving connectivity; unless we fill skills gaps and make sure teachers, learners, and parents know how to use digital tools effectively, the digital divide will only continue to grow.’

Adding to this, Fathima Dada, Managing Director of OUP’s Education Division, said: ‘It is imperative that governments and policy experts come together on a global scale to address the issues identified in our report. We know where the problems lie, and we now need a forward-looking approach to fix them. We owe it to students to ensure that digital learning is fit for purpose, not just in times of crisis, but as we start to look ahead to the future of learning.’

Sumanta Datta, Managing Director of Oxford University Press India (OUPI), further added, “Though there has been a rapid adoption of digital mediums in education across learners in the Indian subcontinent, access to the best content has not been inclusive. Digital education platforms are expensive and out of reach for most middle-income families. Digital content and teaching capabilities vary greatly between private and public schools. In addition, the lack of quality vernacular content, widens the divide between students in urban and rural communities. There is an urgent need for an inclusive education eco-system to address these gaps.”

The report will be discussed in more depth at OUP’s upcoming event on Thursday, 4 November, The Forum For Educatorsa global, online event bringing together educators from around the world to connect and share ideas on how to improve learning for the future.