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Mark Davis

Print and the Digital Divide in Education

Why we shouldn’t abandon print in education post-lockdown

Mar 22, 2022 12:22:28 PM



At the start of 2020, a school located in Sydney, Australia, did the unthinkable. Bucking the global trend, Reddham House School banned the use of iPads for learning. Students and teachers at the school used the devices for the past five years, accessing e-books and digital educational resources instead of using the printed equivalent. Among parents, the move was divisive. Some were very pleased; others were horrified at what seemed to be a backward step. But, among those to whom it mattered (students and teachers), the move was met with joy. The major factor for their removal came from a lack of supporting students’ technological skills and the distraction they posed when messages and alerts popped up on screen.


Was this a bit of an overreaction? Maybe…but this unusual decision highlights two things: First, print is by no means becoming extinct in the education sphere and, second, how beneficial it is to have the choice to try digital learning as an alternative to more conventional methods. 


What Matters Is Our Ability to Choose

Choice. Even this far into the 21st century, 3 billion people do not have the choice of going online in their everyday lives—despite pandemic-related connectivity increases. Around 96% of these people live in the developing world. Despite first-world economies such as the UK, US, and China having a combined total of over a billion households connected to the Internet, many within these countries had to rely on print to make home education viable. Even within developed continents, there is disparity between households who have connectivity. By 2016, France had 83% of households connected, whereas Poland had 74% of households connected.


Choice is also a key takeaway from the exercise at Reddham School. The school provided the technological resource to students rather than ask families to make the investment, and it therefore made it possible for another mode of learning to be trialled. The pandemic has highlighted the divide between those students who have a choice in the technology they use and those students that do not have a choice. The digital divide is real, and it’s a stark reminder of how vulnerable people are when the safety nets of institutions like schools, colleges, and libraries are not available.


Print Steps Up to the Mark

Throughout the pandemic lockdowns, print became the champion of the disadvantaged within the context of education. This has accelerated dramatically due to COVID-19 lingering. Families who found themselves having to make the choice between putting food on the table or paying the Wi-Fi bill found they did not have to abandon their child’s educational prospects. Their school provided printed workbooks and resources. Disadvantaged families were given back their choice. Now that education institutions as a whole are open again and students can access digital resources regularly on-site, what does this mean for print in education and the value it provides?


As with any major societal event, there is no doubt that the pandemic has accelerated change in the ways we live, work, and study. Educators had to implement new technologies and processes that would normally take months to test and deliver to the end user. Not helping matters, education has always been notoriously cautious to alter existing processes and replace established technologies with newer ones. Interactive whiteboards, for example, were a wonder invention back in 1990. Anecdotally, I didn’t see one in my school classroom until 2005. The rate of change meant that students who may have been at a disadvantage to their peers financially still had the same levels of exposure to emerging digital technologies at school as their peers.


Reaching Students During Lockdown

How do you ensure that a child who has no device or Wi-Fi access at home, or who has to share a device with a sibling or parent, can continue to learn when their online access at school is no longer an option? According to a study conducted by the European Investment Bank, 89% of schools worldwide distributed printed packs of work in 2020, and 84% of primary schools (under 12 years old) in the UK distributed printed materials to combat a lack of online learning resource at home. For those over 12 in Secondary education, the figure was 77%. One primary teacher I spoke to who oversaw the printing and distribution of resources in her school confirmed that printed packs of work were prepared and distributed on a weekly basis so that students didn’t fall too far behind. They were met with a warm reception from parents and, anecdotally, from one Syrian refugee family who had no access to the Internet and were not proficient English speakers. The printed workbooks for their children were intuitive enough as not to require great amounts of explanation whilst still helping them keep up with their studies.


Of course, it’s important to emphasise that printing did not irradicate the digital divide throughout the lockdown. If a family on the poverty line did not have a device to study on at home, they were highly unlikely to have a printer to use for schoolwork or for printing off other key documents, such as assistance forms. Printing did, however, help bridge the gap between those that could learn at home via digital means and those who could not. The benefits of print as a low cost, highly available, and adaptable medium for studying at home refocused attitudes as to its effectiveness during a time of increasing disparity.


Post-Lockdown and Beyond

Over the last two years, print helped everyone in their effort to adapt to new ways of working. The support it provided to students caught up in the digital divide cannot be underestimated. It’s also important to consider the effect it had on those studying at home with the ability to learn digitally. According to a 2020 study by the University of Cambridge Assessment Division, when asked what would help enhance learning at home, 50% of students (primary and secondary combined) responded that printed materials that could be produced at home would have aided their studies.


With print volumes generally increasing at home due to factors such as hybrid working, the question remains as to whether we will also see this trend in education now that disadvantaged students, once again, have access to digital resources on-site through various clubs and other initiatives. Now that such access has been restored, and digital learning technologies have become more established, it is unlikely that huge increases in print volumes for education will follow.


Keypoint Intelligence Opinion

So, where does this leave print in education? Can digital learning and print work together in the future? There’s no reason why not. After all, it was Xerox’s PARC labs that brought us the first interactive whiteboard in 1990. Stories of print firms helping to provide digital technologies to disadvantaged children during the lockdowns also provides confidence in this potential partnership. Print will play a part in education for a long time yet, and all the time it is it will always be there to support those who, for whatever reason, cannot access digital resources in the same capacity as their peers. For everything print has done over the last two years in education, and will continue to do, let’s make sure it gets the credit it deserves.


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