It’s the sequel none of us wanted, although perhaps all knew was coming: Lockdown 3.0. When the Prime Minister told us to remain in our homes once again at the turn of the year – closing schools just one day into the new term – my first thought was of all the young people still living on the wrong side of digital divide. How would they cope?
Statistics suggest that up to 1.78 million students faced challenges with home schooling due to a lack of access to internet connections or devices during the previous lockdowns. This is supported by our recent (serendipitously timed) Nominet research which found that half of British parents worry that their children’s education will be impacted due to a lack of tech in the home, and only one in four parents (26%) are able to provide their children with uninterrupted access to the internet for home learning.
Even for those families who do have some devices and connectivity at home, it can be worryingly insufficient. We found that one in five (21%) of parents with school-aged children have to share their own devices with their youngsters so the whole family can juggle working and learning at home, while a fifth don’t have a consistently reliable internet connection at all.
This is new data, but the issue it highlights is old as the hills. At Nominet we’ve been working for a long time to raise awareness of and find solutions for the digital poverty that persists across our country. The pandemic has only made the negative impact more stark. Back in spring 2020, when the first lockdown arrived, we responded rapidly: in record time we helped launch DevicesDotNow, an industry collaboration that sought to gather digital devices and connectivity solutions for distribution to those without. Over 11,000 devices were handed out during the initiative, and our learnings have been fed into Reboot by Nominet, an online platform that supports community groups and volunteers to source and re-purpose devices in their local areas, in a cost-efficient way.
Now, ten months on and into the third iteration of lockdown, it feels like momentum is growing. We saw a massive upswing in visits to the Reboot site following the Prime Minister’s announcement – there were 5,000 site visitors per day at one point. The BBC has thrown itself behind the cause, launching the ‘Make a difference: Give a laptop’ campaign across all channels to force this issue into public attention. Nominet has been supporting this campaign and our own resources have been shared on the BBC website.
We have also formed a new strategic alliance with The Restart Project, a fantastic and long-standing organisation that helps people learn how to repair their electronics, and working closely with some big companies who are keen to do their bit. We’ve even checked in the back of the cupboards at Nominet HQ and donated our own spare laptops to a local school. Could you do the same?
The Government seems to have woken up to the issue of a lack of digital access for schooling this time around. There has been efforts to get laptops out to young people who are without and, unlike previous lockdowns, children who simply can’t learn at home due to digital poverty are being classed as ‘vulnerable’ and are being allowed to attend school in person. It must be a huge relief for many families, yet these efforts are just sticking a plaster on a problem that runs far deeper.
Digital exclusion is not a new issue. The digital divide is a very real and far-reaching challenge that has, for too long, placed many families in difficulty. It will hinder any national ambitions to become a global digital leader and prevent us, as a country, unlock the plethora of benefits that technology can provide society as a whole.
As we mobilise today out of urgency, getting laptops and devices into the hands of those in need, I am also nurturing an optimism that is the beginning of a brighter future in which digital poverty is recognised and the digital divide tackled with innovative and sustainable solutions.