As the poorest languish offline, ministers ignore the potential of e-learning to close digital divide

14th January 2011 at 00:00

This week, the halls of the Olympia centre in London have been packed with exhibitors and visitors at the annual BETT show, highlighting for the 27th year that Britain is a global leader in the development of education technology. With so much home-grown expertise, it is a shame that ministers attach such little importance to e-learning.

The recent white paper setting out the Government's vision for education made no reference to e-learning and the need to tackle the digital divide.

While ministers have committed themselves to tackling inequality and ensuring children from all backgrounds are able to succeed, the Government is in danger of missing a trick if it does not work to embed e-learning in our education system. Indeed, by failing to address the digital divide, ministers are undermining the warm words they so often speak about the need to close the achievement gap.

We know that ensuring everyone has access to technology is vital to tackling inequality, with a recent survey conducted jointly by this newspaper and the e-Learning Foundation revealing that more than half of teachers believe that children who do not have internet access at home are seriously disadvantaged when it comes to their education. Over a fifth of teachers told us that they viewed broadband at home as essential for children to complete their homework, while almost two-thirds said that it is desirable.

Young people without a computer now struggle to complete their homework and are unable to further their own learning via online resources and the digital media. They then enter the workforce without the basic skills they need to find employment. The cost to society of poor literacy and numeracy is understood but the problem of digital illiteracy is often overlooked. Of course, it is essential that young people leave education able to read and write but the ability to understand how to use technology is now a key skill which employers take for granted.

Because the digitally disadvantaged are also the socially disadvantaged, the two need to be tackled together and can no longer be viewed as separate problems. Yet there is currently a huge hole in the Government's thinking. Plans to roll out super-fast broadband are undermined by the failure to recognise the role that schools can play in tackling the digital divide and ensuring that families from all backgrounds can benefit.

Unless the Government responds, there is a danger that the social impact of the digital divide will worsen. Ministers are enthusiastically embracing the idea of shifting the delivery of more services online in order to generate additional savings and supposedly make them easier to access.

Martha Lane Fox, the Government's "digital champion", recently called for a revolution in the way it deals with the public online. But unless ministers act to tackle the gap, any such revolution is set to leave the poorest families, those most reliant on government services, behind.

If the Government is truly committed to building a big society and enabling people to become more active citizens, it cannot turn a blind eye to the problem. A big society must surely be one which reaches out to support those who are too often excluded, including the digitally disadvantaged. Although the internet is often blamed for atomising society, schools are embedded in their neighbourhoods with access to a range of digital resources and therefore have the potential to turn virtual communities into stronger real communities.

Unfortunately, ministers seem yet to understand that schools are well positioned to be drivers of the big society. They have the links with individual families across their communities and the motivation to reduce social inequality by closing the achievement gap. And there is now a real opportunity to embrace e-learning, not just to tackle the digital divide, but also to secure savings and make their money go further.

We know that comprehensive e-learning programmes have enabled schools to generate savings - less money is spent on expensive textbooks which are lost or become out of date and online resources can be easily shared.

The pupil premium, as it grows over the coming years, may also provide schools with an option to think creatively and consider ways in which expenditure on technology may help them to ensure that every child, no matter their background, is able to fulfil their potential.

At BETT this week, we can see the significant contribution to the economy that educational technology companies make, generating millions of pounds in exports alone. It would be a shame if the Government allowed our international competitors to benefit from the innovation of British companies while failing to ensure it is having maximum impact in our own schools here in Britain.

Lord Knight is the former schools minister. Lord Willis is a former headteacher and Liberal Democrat education spokesman. Lord Willis is chair, and Lord Knight a trustee, of the e-Learning Foundation.

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