With many Australians facing a potentially prolonged period of distance learning due to COVID-19 shutdowns, health vulnerabilities and social distancing requirements, schools, tertiary education providers, individuals and families are quickly transitioning to online learning.
Yet while evidence shows access to the internet and technology has improved, inequality remains. It is most common among students who already face additional barriers to learning.
About 86 per cent of Australian households have access to the internet at home, but while this headline figure appears to indicate a highly connected country, it doesn't provide an accurate picture of who's missing out.
While only 3 per cent of high-income households don't have access to the internet, this increases to 33 per cent among the lowest income households and presents a major barrier and risk for children who are learning remotely.
The cost of internet services has gone down slightly in recent years, but stagnating wage growth and increased internet usage means that households are spending more on internet connectivity as a proportion of their income. People on low incomes and those with lower levels of education and employment are more excluded.
The gap between the wealthiest households and the most disadvantaged is stark. More than four million Australians access the internet solely through a mobile connection. Families with children under 15 have an average of 2.1 laptops or desktop computers at home, but this drops to 1.4 devices for families in the lowest income bracket.
Many families have ensured access by sharing data and devices and using public facilities like libraries – which are now closed. Increased access requirements for educational purposes will put a strain on data limits and make sharing difficult.
The digital divide is not just about access.
Despite the widespread use of digital devices, 27 per cent of Australian 15-year-olds have low digital-literacy skills by international standards.
That means that even students who have devices may not be able to read and analyse online information to support their learning.
What does this mean for education?
Engaging in online learning requires access to a computer, a reliable internet connection (with adequate speed and data), and, for some, specific software. As schools began increasing their emphasis on e-homework prior to the crisis, concerns already existed about the impact of this shift on students experiencing disadvantage.
If there are to be further school closures and restrictions on movement in response to COVID-19, the impact of the digital divide on existing educational inequality will likely worsen.
Research by the Mitchell Institute estimates that up to 10 per cent of Australia's population start school developmentally vulnerable and remain behind at all stages throughout their education. Others fall behind at certain points and recovering from this under normal circumstances can be extremely difficult.
Problematically, it's the students that face the greatest educational challenges – those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds – who are also most likely to live in households without adequate access to the internet and technology, and without the know-how to use them most effectively.
Some efforts are already being made to ensure remote access to education for all students, including the ABC'S move to increase free educational content, working in collaboration with state and territory education departments.
There are schools that already offer laptops and other equipment to families with limited resources. Many private companies are opening up their platforms to provide educational tools and resources for free.
Mobile phone service providers have also offered data top-ups to customers. But these mechanisms tend to reward some customers over others – with those on contracts and higher-cost plans receiving much higher allowances compared with customers on low-cost plans or using pre-paid services. Lower-income earners are more likely to use the latter.
These initiatives will provide much-needed support to many families, but they don't represent a comprehensive solution.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Australian schools are now in transition and preparing for a "new mode of operation" that will combine on-site and distance learning. In the United Kingdom, schools are closed but remain open to disadvantaged students and children of essential workers. A temporary "dual model" for Australian schools must also ensure access and additional support for disadvantaged students, and reduce the risk of disengagement.
Education is a fundamental right and if school students are expected to continue their education online, then the government has a responsibility to guarantee access to the internet and necessary equipment and support for every pupil.
Proactive measures to reduce the digital divide will be vital to managing these impacts as much as possible. These could include the subsidised provision of equipment and home internet directly to students or to education providers. This is already happening in the US, where authorities in some states have pledged equipment and major mobile phone providers have offered free installation and data to families with students.
Australian governments are facing unprecedented health and economic challenges that are set to worsen significantly over the coming months. While slowing the pace of the virus is critical, reducing the growth of inequality – including in education – will be an equally important and complex challenge.
First published in The Age