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Why is there a social divide in online learning – and how do we fix it?

Is there a way to mend this divide before it becomes even more widespread?

Safeera Sarjoo
08th September 2016
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A recent OECD report has suggested that there is a social divide within online learning across different countries. The study focused on the way teenagers used the internet and technology at home.

What they found was even in the event of universal access to the internet, pupils from a wealthier background were more likely to use the internet for information and furthering their own education. Students from more disadvantaged backgrounds meanwhile were found to use the internet for gaming and chatting online.

A BBC article by Sean Coughlan explained that even though both groups of pupils spent a similar amount of time on the internet, these strong differences in how young people use technology could be directly linked to their socio economic environment.

Most students do have some form of access to the internet according to the report irrespective of their parent’s wealth. In instances where they do not have access at home, schools play a big part in ensuring that pupils can utilise ICT resources.

‘Among the most disadvantaged students, 50% of students in Turkey, 45% in Mexico, 40% in Jordan and 38% in Chile and Costa Rica only have access to the internet thanks to their school,’ according to the OECD report.

The digital divide starts to take hold when we look at how students take advantage of online resources though. The PISA report explains that even though practically anyone can access a MOOC, apply for a job or even play a role within their society from the comfort of a computer, not all students are aware of this.

The OECD report puts this down to various factors but hones in on a lack of navigation and reading skills that can be limited for disadvantaged students compared to advantaged students.

‘Ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than will expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services,’ according to the report.

Whilst improving reading skills is one factor that can help when it comes to utilising online media, we feel that turning a blind eye to providing more access to technology can be somewhat of a hindrance. It’s important that students are aware of how online technology works and the options that they can achieve through using devices and becoming proficient in online language.

This will undoubtedly carry through to their adult life and will also play a part when it comes to exploring other opportunities as they mature and gain a better sense of what it is they wish to do.

Even though the UK did not take part in this study, it’s important that we think about this digital divide as online learning is becoming more common on our shores. The fact that there are some people living within poverty will definitely have an impact on how they utilise the internet and technology if at all.

This observation by the OECD should get educators and parents thinking how they can best motivate children to use the internet for seeking out opportunities and connecting with information that can stand them in good stead in the future. Yes, improving literacy and reading is important but if children do not understand how they can navigate to more than just games, then this social divide will continue to widen even in the online space.


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