Our latest research has shown that many disadvantaged students do not have adequate access to devices to learn from home, including students on our own programmes. So how have we been helping, and what have we learned?
The closure of schools and universities in March threw into sharp focus the scale of the digital divide in the UK. For many young people, access to a laptop and a good internet connection was a major barrier to continuing their learning.
With the second national lockdown likely to continue for several weeks, there is an urgent need to address the problem. As our latest polling shows, just one in ten teachers report that all their students have adequate access to a device for remote learning, and two-thirds of schools have used their own resources to buy IT equipment for pupils.
Since March we have recommended that the government make sure that all students have access to the necessary technology for learning. Thanks to generous support from XTX Markets, we have been able to put this recommendation into practice for our young people on Sutton Trust Programmes. We want to share the approach we have taken, as well as the lessons we’ve learned, from providing devices to students at pace.
Assessing the need
It has been important to understand the specific needs of 16-18 year-olds we work with, as we have seen fewer digital access issues among this group compared with pre-16 students. Surveying over 12,000 of our current and former programme participants, we collected information on what devices students have access to in their home, for how long each day they have access to these, and whether they have reliable internet access.
This highlighted that, in addition to those without any device, there is a need for support among those who have unreliable Wi-Fi, or limited use of an electronic device: while almost all our students had access to some sort of electronic device other than a phone, around 10% only had access to a device for less than three hours per day.
Listening to students
With this in mind, we have been offering laptops to all students who have limited or no access to a laptop, and dongles to all students with no, or unreliable, Wi-Fi. We have consciously spread the net wide, which has been helpful to cater for individuals’ unique circumstances. Rather than trying to map out all scenarios in which a student may require support, it has been more accurate to hear about our students’ needs from the students themselves. From this, our students have let us know that three hours’ access to a shared device per day is insufficient for learning, and that there is more of a need for laptops than dongles.
“My laptop will be a great help for attending the Zoom sessions on Sutton Trust and my A-level work as I didn’t have a device to do so.” – UK Summer School student
The need for flexibility
We have had to be flexible when predicting demand. We didn’t know, for example, how many students would turn down a device, either because they felt they didn’t need it, or because they had sourced support from elsewhere, such as their school or college. In our case, around half of those offered a device said they didn’t need one any longer.
Additionally, those working with our students day-to-day have alerted us to circumstances where a device is needed on an ad hoc basis. Situations change, and so we have been glad to have a relationship with suppliers in which we can adjust shipping quantities according to need.
“I have just received my laptop and I’m so pleased that I will be able to interact and take part of the summer school online programme. This means a lot.” – UK Summer School student
There have also been logistical considerations to navigate. We have had to contact a small proportion of students by phone to ensure that their lack of email response isn’t down to total lack of digital access. Then there have been the details such as ensuring our mobile data provider gives adequate coverage for everywhere our students are based and ensuring the laptop specification is appropriate for students’ needs.
“The laptop and dongle device were more helpful than you can imagine” – Pathways to Law Plus student
We have been extremely grateful for the generous and quick grant we received from XTX Markets, which has enabled us to support all of our students who we know have experienced digital access difficulties – and support them in a timely manner. The result has been almost complete access to our online programmes last summer (96% of students activated their accounts on this platform) and a current position in which we are able to continue offering support to our students this year.
This has not been a perfect process, but it’s true that you learn a lot from doing something for the first time. We hope our learnings may be useful for other organisations working in a similar area as we all work to tackle the digital divide.