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‘Let’s ensure digital learning increases equality for all students’

Date: August 11th, 2021

I'm often struck by the wisdom of others - and, as managing director of higher education (HE) at the UK’s education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc, I’m fortunate to get close to some leading thinkers in my field.   

‘An accelerator of inequality’ 

As an example, my colleague Esther Wilkinson recently chaired a global discussion that brought together leaders from National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) around the world to debate digital learning and the impact of the pandemic. A lot of powerful comments were made, and I was particularly struck by the words of Steve Song, who works with the Network Startup Resource Center and is also a policy advisor with the Mozilla Corporation, seeking to enable greater Internet access throughout Africa and other emerging markets. Song noted that while the pandemic has taught the HE sector the importance of access and connectivity, it’s also delivered something more profound than that. “It’s taught us the importance of inclusion,” he said. “Because, left to its own devices, technology – and in particular technology for access to education – is an accelerator of inequality. Those with access move forward while those without become invisible.” 

This is a truth I’ve observed throughout my career, albeit in different guises. People in the university sector have been talking about transformation for years, looking at how to adapt and improve for the benefit of all students and staff– but when I reflect on my career, the initiatives and the drivers we prioritised back in the 1980s have barely changed. Perhaps it’s fair to reflect that circling the same issues for 35 years may evidence a lack of meaningful progress.  

Global collaboration 

With the pandemic, that changed. We saw action and a new open-ness. The question of how to pivot from the physical to the digital was on everyone’s lips. We at Jisc have been sharing experiences with members and stakeholders across the world. Through 2020 and the first half of 2021, universities have been addressing the need to deliver robust, accessible digital learning, while recognising the digital inequalities that can prove a barrier to many learners.   

I'm also seeing increasing focus on international students. As the CEO at BCNet in Canada, Bala Kathiresan - another participant in Wilkinson’s debate – commented: “When the pandemic happened, we had to serve all our students; both Canada-domiciled students, and those who were pursuing higher education in our universities but had to go back to their home countries. How could we provide access so they’re not disadvantaged? This is a time to consider how we can extend capacity, collaborating across the globe to make sure we’re not inadvertently continuing to contribute to the digital divide.”  

Where does the need for transformation lie here? Can digital and remote learning deliver a complete experience for all, regardless of their circumstances and location? I’ve seen reports that suggest students miss lectures. It seems more likely to me that they miss what happens in and around lectures – the mingling with peers as they arrive, the coffee to compare notes afterwards, the opportunity to discuss assignments. That social learning that accompanies formal learning is important. But maybe rather than rushing back to campus, we should be looking at whether and how we can recreate those elements digitally in an effective way. Perhaps a network of virtual classrooms could help improve learner experiences, while saving institutions money. As Krzysztof Kurowski, technical director at PSNC in Poland, said: “We must stay very close to end-users and listen to their voices, because otherwise, we may end up with something that isn’t useful for them. This is a challenge for us; to observe what is happening around us and see what innovative solutions are becoming more popular in education”. 

Building a better ‘normal’ 

Perhaps what we have now is an opportunity to leverage digital to help break down divides and ‘level up’, addressing digital transformation holistically and from the student perspective. Let’s think about technology, look at curriculum design, and consider how students access their courses and programmes. Through Jisc's recent consultancy work, we have been supporting universities to better understand such needs and consider how to review course and module design so that learners are welcomed and engaged. 

 As the world starts to emerge from the pandemic, let’s not row back from the progress we’ve made. Let’s address Song’s well-observed fears around technology as an accelerator of inequity and instead ensure digital increases equality and inclusion, moving forward fully cognisant of the risks and bringing all our students with us. Let’s build a better ‘normal’. When it comes to university infrastructure, Song commented, “there needs to be an agenda of inclusion”. I’d argue that goes for digital learning too.  

Hear our ‘Borderless Conversation’ with Jonathan Baldwin, Jisc's managing director of higher education, on 12 August 2021.