In October, the Office for Students (OfS), put out a call for evidence on the topic of ‘digital poverty’ during the coronavirus pandemic, defined as the lack of access to one or more of the following: appropriate hardware; appropriate software; reliable access to the internet; technical support and repair when required; a trained teacher or instructor, or; an appropriate study space.
We know that this is an important issue for OU students and so we were eager to ensure that the OU student perspective was considered in this consultation. I asked students via social media what their experiences were of lack of access to the components listed above and how it impacts their studies, and I received a range of responses that contributed to the response submitted to the OfS.
The main point, arising from the responses I received, is that we really wanted to highlight to the OfS that ‘digital poverty’ (or ‘digital exclusion’) is not an issue that has only begun to affect OU students during the coronavirus pandemic. It is a serious barrier to participation for many distance-learning students, especially in isolated rural areas, and it is a problem they have been dealing with for many years.
Poor internet speeds
Many students choose OU degrees due to the convenience of being able to obtain a qualification whilst working either full- or part-time and maintaining family and caring commitments. This means that a student’s study time is often limited and must therefore be used effectively. As such it is hugely frustrating for students when much of this limited time is spent waiting for learning content to load due to poor internet speeds.
‘Digital poverty’ (or ‘digital exclusion’) is not an issue that has only begun to affect OU students during the coronavirus pandemic.
OU students have reported that the lack of access to high-speed broadband leaves them unable to benefit from some of the more interactive learning materials, including video and audio content or even tutorials, where they would get to talk to their tutors and meet fellow students. Moreover, students reported having to ban their family members from using the internet while they were trying to study in the evening in order to maximise the amount of bandwidth available for their studying.
Other OU students have said that they often have to stay at work late or visit friends in nearby towns to access fast-enough broadband to access all of their learning materials online. This, some said, defeats the point of choosing to complete their the OU in order to be able to study whilst maintaining family commitments.
All of that said, it is important to acknowledge that the coronavirus pandemic has obviously compounded these issues of digital poverty/exclusion, with increased competition for not only the broadband bandwidth, but also in many cases, the need to share space and equipment to be able to work from home. With many students, who are also parents, having to fit their study around the time that their children needed to be online for schooling, as well as work.
OU students have reported that the lack of access to high-speed broadband leaves them unable to benefit from some of the more interactive learning materials
Lack of local resources
A further compounding issue for students who already struggle with internet speeds and study space is the closure of large numbers of public libraries in England. Local libraries provided a useful resource for OU students who don’t have access to a campus library in the same way as traditional brick university students and were often places where students without space, equipment or fast broadband could go to ensure access. They are sadly dwindling in number in England. The OU in Northern Ireland (where libraries have not closed permanently) has an agreement with all local libraries to allow OU students 24-hour access, ensuring there is always a local resource available. A similar arrangement in other parts of the UK would be complex to arrange over such a large geographic area, but highly valuable.
The government’s current 2025 target for fibre-broadband in every home is well known, however, with recent news headlines indicating that this target is likely to be missed based on current progress, it is increasingly important that pressure is applied to the government to deliver in this area.
Distance-learning students should not have to consider whether their internet is fast enough when deciding whether they should invest in their future by signing up to a degree.
With no guarantees on when a coronavirus vaccine will be available, higher education in the UK could be increasingly reliant on high-speed internet connections in order to provide value for money to students who are investing a considerable amount into their education for the foreseeable future. Therefore, I hope that the OfS prioritises the issue of digital poverty/exclusion, as it is likely to have a major impact on the quality on the academic student experience for years to come.
Furthermore, as the issue becomes more of a priority for other institutions and student representative organisations, there may be opportunities to work together to ensure this issue is not forgotten by policy-makers, whilst also to sharing best practice and innovations that will enhance the student experience even when learning takes place online.
Although most of the issues discussed here are, for OU students, not isolated to the circumstances surrounding the pandemic, if the coronavirus crisis sparks a discussion and action from the OfS and government, that can only be a good thing. Distance-learning students should not have to consider whether their internet is fast enough when deciding whether they should invest in their future by signing up to a degree. But unfortunately, even in 2020, this is still a significant barrier for many.