The great digital divide

There might be one device in a household, but three learners and two adults, so that creates tensions in terms of priority of use.

Inequities in internet access existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but its onslaught has only exacerbated the gap. Monica Crouch talks to the people trying to close it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fault lines. More people from lower-income brackets contracted the virus as they couldn’t work from home; and more women lost their jobs than men. Around the world, school closures and the shift to online learning lifted the curtain on the haves and have-nots of digital access.

In February 2021, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that more than 33,000 students in NSW did not have home internet access, with western and south-western Sydney home to the most students without internet access.

The Dropping off the Edge Report, produced by Jesuit Social Services, the Centre for Just Places and the University of Canberra, pinpoints the suburbs and towns in each state where disadvantage is most concentrated. In NSW, 5 percent of the total areas surveyed accounted for 29 percent of the disadvantage.

Digital exclusion has huge implications for education. The Wester’ly Coalition was formed to advocate for digital inclusion in western and south-western Sydney. The group campaigns for long-term digital inclusion solutions for families experiencing hardship. It has five clear asks: access, affordability, capacity building, collaboration, representation.

Defining the problem

Wester’ly member Jane Stratton is also the CEO and founder of the Think+DO Tank Foundation, which facilitates community self-direction over everyday circumstances in low-income parts of south-western and western Sydney.

Stratton says getting data around digital exclusion is tricky. “The Census used to ask, ‘Do you have internet access at home?’ but this question has been dropped, reflecting falling government interest in the issue,” Stratton says.

“In Fairfield, for example, there’s a high proportion of school-aged children and a low rate of digital connectivity. Between 13 percent and 26 percent of households don’t have reliable access to the internet, or they’re mobile dependent.” Western Sydney is also home to several notorious ‘wi-fi blackspots’.

“There might be one device in a household, but three learners and two adults,” Stratton says. “So that creates tensions in terms of priority of use.”

During lockdowns in 2021, one school reported that only six out of 110 families had the necessary hardware to set their children up for online learning.

“About 3.5 percent of the income of an average household is spent on telecommunications and internet needs; but in low-income households, it’s 10 percent of their income,” Stratton said. “That’s just another way of saying it’s unaffordable.”

Affordability issues tend to outweigh internet availability. “Most students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds will find ways to access some form of technology and bandwidth,” a recently retired school principal from western Sydney said (we have withheld his name to protect his students’ privacy). “And schools in western Sydney have done a great job trying to accommodate students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“But families in the west struggle to provide multiple family members with even basic devices. More often they share a single home device or phone with equally limited access to networks. This is not effective when you have multiple students trying to do their work online.”

Many senior students also work long hours in tiring hospitality and service jobs to pay for their own devices and internet plans, but many of these jobs disappeared during lockdowns. “It led to frustration and worry for senior students, disengagement for others,” the principal said.

In almost 75 percent of households in western and south-western Sydney, a language other than English is spoken.

These language barriers in turn lead to gender implications, as women tend to be responsible for children’s needs. “Some mothers said if they’d had technical instructions in their own language, they could get their children connected for home learning,” Stratton says. “But many began to despair of their capacity to motivate their children and help them learn.”

The former principal understands this concern. “Compare the above to the experience of affluent households, who live above the ‘latte line’, often with multiple devices, unlimited bandwidth and astute, fluent parents,” he said. “It’s easy to see how the gap widens.”

Making progress

Claire Thomas is the Manager of School and Community Engagement for Jesuit Social Services in NSW. She has taught Human Society and its Environment (HSIE) in Catholic and independent schools, and works with teachers, leaders and students to raise awareness on issues of social justice.

Also a member of Wester’ly, Thomas says the group is “seeking to work with public, independent and Catholic schools to communicate and transform the root drivers of digital exclusion”.

Wester’ly has also been working with decision makers in the political and corporate sectors to devise equity strategies.

“We’re looking for a cross-portfolio, bipartisan response to ensure that all children and young people are able to engage, learn, connect and thrive,” she says.

Thomas says meetings with politicians and telecommunications companies have been positive so far, but there are no quick fixes.

Wester’ly is currently collaborating with Western Sydney University to explore the impact of digital exclusion on education in western Sydney during the pandemic. The first step is a questionnaire for school principals, followed by a ‘deep dive’ into six schools in western Sydney, both primary and secondary.

Former Wester’ly member Maia Giordano is the Child Friendly Community Facilitator at Blacktown City Council. She specialises in child rights and youth engagement. Her work focuses on ensuring children and young people get to enjoy the benefits of the digital age.

Digital literacy is central to so many daily functions, Giordano says. “We require digital access for education, for government services, for libraries, health services, even just social connection and downtime,” she says. “And without that, kids are really missing out.”

Seeking solutions

“Being an educator is an act of equity – it’s at the heart of being a teacher,” Stratton says. “If you accept that it’s partly the education system’s responsibility to close the equity gap, then what’s the mechanism?” Here are some suggestions:

  • Survey parents to find out the school community’s needs.
  • Form a ‘network’ of local schools that can share and connect wi-fi signals. With unlimited data plans, there is no extra cost. Telecommunications providers can help facilitate this.
  • Harness the skills of non-English speaking communities so no one is left behind.
  • Donate: Optus offers a ‘donate data’ program so its customers can share resources with those who lack them.
  • Encourage libraries to leave their wi-fi signal on after closing hours. (Numerous stories emerged during lockdown of school students gathering in library carparks to access wi-fi so they could do their homework.)
  • Trial ‘internet buses’. In developing countries, some students rely on regular visits of vans filled with computers connected to the internet.
  • Manage waste. Could schools share or donate old equipment when they’re upgrading?
  • Lobby telecommunications providers for long-range wi-fi, so schools can throw their wi-fi signal as far as possible.

Despite all the difficulties, the former principal was all praise for students. “The classes of 2020 and 2021 in western Sydney showed remarkable resilience despite the social, economic and educational challenges thrown at them,” he said.

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