Return to distance learning in school would widen digital divide, experts warn

Government planning for schools to reopen fully in September but teachers warn this may not be possible

A return to distance learning in schools would have a severe impact on students’ education and motivation and widen the digital divide, experts have warned.

Dr Selina McCoy, of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), said its survey of hundreds of secondary schools during the coronavirus lockdown found many students were less interested in engaging with online learning approaches adopted by their teachers. Student engagement was particularly adversely impacted in disadvantaged – or Deis – schools, it found.

These findings, Dr McCoy said, raise questions over the sustainability of distance learning in the event of schools having to remain closed or just partially reopening in the new academic year.

The Government is planning for as full a return to school as possible in September. However, teachers’ unions have warned that schools may not fully reopen due to social distancing requirements.



Dr McCoy said while most schools used a variety of online platforms to teach during the lockdown, use of technology to overcome the lack of social contact has been only “minimally effective”.

“Maintaining the school community and a supportive school environment was difficult. Perhaps most importantly, the school’s pastoral care for students became exponentially more difficult with the move to distance learning, with wellbeing an area of particular concern. This had a particularly adverse impact on students with additional needs,” she said.

Dr McCoy said it was important to maximise classroom learning as much as possible in the new school year, with distance learning coming into play only when “absolutely necessary”.

She said schools should be allowed to temporarily acquire more space which would allow more students to take part in classroom learning.

While resources are vital, she said it was important that school leaders retain autonomy in order to be able to act based on their own judgment and local context. A key focus, she said, will need to be on the “digital divide” and ensuring all students have access to devices and high-speed broadband. Attention should also focus on providing space and supervision for remote learning for students whose home situations are not suitable.

Alan Mongey, president of the National Association of Principals and Deputies, said all education partners are aiming for a full return to school in September and keeping the virus out of schools.

However, if this did not prove possible, he said the level of investment required for a fit-for-purpose system of blended learning for all students would be “astronomical”.


Most schools lack the infrastructure needed to live-stream classes and many children have varying access to devices or broadband, said Mr Mongey, who is principal of Coláiste Bhaile Chláir, a 1,000-pupil secondary school in Co Galway.

Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn, a lecturer in technical communications at University of Limerick, said there was also an urgent need for improvement in digital content to ensure all subject areas are adequately resourced.

She said much of the conversation over the digital divide has focused on devices, rather than the actual content available for students.

“We do not know what September will bring and we need to prepare now for as equitable a level of access to high-quality digital content as is possible.

Dr Marcus-Quinn said we cannot expect teachers to take on the additional role of the design and development of high-quality digital content.

“We need targeted funding to populate our national repository as was done in the early stages of Scoilnet,” she said, referencing the Department of Education’s online resources for teachers.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent