Digital divide in education didn’t begin with pandemic

Net Results: School return brings costly devices and idea of refurbished technology

More than three-quarters of students feel under pressure to buy new electronic devices, while just over half of parents feel a similar burden, a survey finds.

More than three-quarters of students feel under pressure to buy new electronic devices, while just over half of parents feel a similar burden, a survey finds.

 

The end of August means one thing for many of us: the return to school. Whether we are students, teachers or parents, the dying days of summer signal a return to routine and normality.

Or at least, they usually would. With the Delta variant cutting a swathe through the country, it’s not quite clear what “normal” will look like for the thousands of families facing the return to education.

One thing is clear though – technology is likely to play a significant part.

If there was one thing that emerged from the pandemic lockdown it was how much we now rely on technology. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and everything shut down, we turned to tablets, smartphones and laptops to work, educate and socialise.

Our devices became the hub of all our worlds. We learned how to make sourdough and banana bread, tried out the tomato and feta dish that gripped the internet, and signed ourselves up for all manner of new – and quickly dropped – hobbies. We exercised online, did yoga over video calls, held Zoom quizzes and virtual wine tastings.

Screentime, that closely monitored metric, went out the window as school classes were delivered online and extra curricular activities were shifted to virtual platforms.

And the tech companies benefited. TikTok exploded in popularity; users queued up for invites to Clubhouse. Zoom saw its user base grow exponentially. Remote working and learning also buoyed the results of tech giants such as Dell, Microsoft and Apple at a time when other companies were feeling the pinch.

Digital textbooks

While the reopening of society is cutting into that use of technology, it’s unlikely that we will see it return to pre-pandemic levels. And with parents wary of further disruption to the coming school year, it’s not surprising that many may be considering investing in new devices to see them through the next year or two.

For some it’s not a choice. Writing in this newspaper, parenting expert Jen Hogan laid out the cost of returning to school; for many parents – Jen included – a large part of that bill is accounted for by iPads for schoolwork, at the cost of €1,000. That also means digital versions of textbooks that can’t always be passed on to siblings, because e-codes can’t be reused.

It seems massively wasteful, and given that technology is not always the magic bullet it is made out to be, unnecessary.

Prior to the pandemic, some schools had begun to row back on the shift to digital education. A report commissioned by Louth Meath Education and Training Board on the mandatory use of tablets in Ratoath College published in February 2020 found students were frequently distracted by the devices and used them for gaming, shopping and social media instead of class-based work. But then the pandemic hit, and the conversation effectively stopped.

While technology isn’t going away, the need for it presents a problem for schools and families alike. These technologies obviously come with a cost, and with families already hard-pressed by the cost of returning to school, it’s an added burden. Schools aren’t always in a position to supply the devices on a loan basis. Meanwhile, parents have complained about the waste involved in rebuying textbooks just to get the ecode needed for the digital version.

A recently published survey backs up the pressure that people are feeling when it comes to technology in schools. Carried out for online marketplace Refurbed, the survey found more than three-quarters of students feel under pressure to buy new electronic devices, while just over half of parents feel a similar burden.

Electronic waste

The survey found that 65 per cent of parents would be spending between €100 and €300 on devices in the return to school. As for older students, they could be dropping more than €500 on college devices. While it might not hit the €1,000 mark, it is money that families may be unable to afford, especially in houses where more than one child attends second level.

This particular survey is intended to bolster the case for refurbished electronics. And it makes a good point; not only can it save people money but buying refurbished technology instead of new can also soothe any environmental concerns about the mountain of electronic waste we are storing up for the future. Just over half of those surveyed said they would buy a refurbished device for back to school purposes instead of a new device.

Technology has its place in education, but its impact needs to be carefully considered. There are many other reasons why parents are pushing back against digital textbooks; too many to deal with here.

But when it comes to taking the spiralling costs in hand, there is a role for the State to play here. During the pandemic, Dell provided almost 17,000 laptops to third-level students as part of a publicly funded €168 million scheme to facilitate online learning during the pandemic.

Intended to ensure disadvantaged students had access to online learning, it was a recognition of the inequality that has sprung up in recent years in our education system and in our society as a whole.

There is no reason why that programme couldn’t become a more regular support for students of all levels, nor why it shouldn’t include refurbished devices to not only deal with costs but also allay environmental concerns.

The digital divide didn’t begin with the pandemic; it won’t end when Covid-19 is no longer a threat to society.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.