• The first step is to conduct an audit to check what resources your students have available to them.
• Sourcing devices requires creativity and local support.
• Next, it’s time for some legacy planning in terms of how we can build on the lessons learnt to bring technology to everyone’s home.
Like many schools across the country, Bishop Young Academy has embraced the era of online learning as a result of the national lockdowns. This has not been without its challenges. One of the biggest issues has been ensuring that every student has access to the remote-learning provision on offer.
It should not be taken for granted that all families have access to appropriate devices or, in fact, access to the internet. Many students only have mobile phones to access the internet, and lots of families are reliant on free Wi-Fi from public spaces such as cafes or libraries in order to get online. In a world where countless individuals become anxious when not connected to Wi-Fi, it may be startling to realise that many students do not have access at all.
Digital device audit
The first hurdle is to find who has what, by completing a whole-school digital device audit. This should be completed as part of a regular ongoing process to ensure that there are no changes to circumstances and that the ‘tech’ remains up to date and compatible.
The audit should be completed with sensitivity, as a handful of students might be uncomfortable about sharing what they may or may not have in the family home. It is worth considering the use of several tools to carry out an audit, from online surveys for those who have access, to paper copy reporting from 1:1 form-time surveys, letters home, phone calls and, if needed, doorstep visits.
There is a degree of ambiguity surrounding what constitutes a ‘digital device’, so where possible drill down into which devices each student has. Do they have a desktop personal computer, laptop, mobile phone, games console, tablet? Even then there are multiple variants within these ‘tech’ categories such, as iPhones or Android phones, iPads or Kindles, Chromebooks or MacBooks, and so on. You will need to gain as much information as possible about the types of devices your cohort has so that you can check compatibility with your IT teams.
Ultimately, the task of the audit is to determine what resources students have within their family homes. An additional factor that should be considered when completing the audit is regarding the device use, and whether each student has a personal device for their sole use or if the device is shared among siblings or other family members who may be working from home.
This clearly puts pressure on the time the device is available for use, especially when the demand is to follow the regular school timetable remotely. Where possible, schools should consider providing a personal device per student and not just per household.
Securing devices and checking compatibility
Collaboration with your IT team is paramount to ensure that the platforms used for teaching, such as Microsoft Teams or Google Classrooms, are compatible with most common devices. Students may say that they have a device, but the device is often too old or does not work with different interfaces.
During the national lockdowns, software companies and games console giants, such as PlayStation and Xbox, endeavoured to share information about how to utilise their hardware so they are compatible with online learning platforms.
Schools and academies have been able to bid for Department for Education (DfE) laptops to loan out to students who are eligible for Pupil Premium (PP), but often there are more students than quotas can cater for. This is where there may be some financial implications for institutions to nominate sections of the budget for devices.
Areas such as aspects of the Covid-19 catch-up funding could be utilised for this, or you may need to be creative in sourcing devices. One way in which Bishop Young Academy sourced devices during the 12 months from April 2020 to March 2021, was to partner up with a local charity Digital Access West Yorkshire, which repurposes donated devices.
Digital Access West Yorkshire is a group of volunteers with a background in refurbishing and distributing tech with the aim of resolving the need for connectivity within communities. Staff members of Bishop Young Academy donated old or unused devices to be redistributed as part of a digital recycling scheme that gives straight into our community. We continue to work with the charity and are looking for ways to repurpose our own internal school stock in order to do our bit in recycling tech as part of our commitment to a sustainable future.
Having a device is all very well, but we found some families struggled to get online. Provision needs to be created for those families who, despite having a device, do not have access to the internet. This has been particularly hard during the national lockdowns, with the closure of public spaces that could otherwise be utilised, such as cafes, libraries and other venues.
In order to support students during lockdown, the DfE provided internet dongles for use by PP students. The dongles served as ‘hot spots’ for personal devices. Phone companies such as Vodafone donated numerous data-rich SIM cards to schools that applied for them, for families to use in their mobile phones as further ‘hot spots’, and some companies even added unlimited data into their existing contract packages.
These incentives were publicised and shared widely via social media. There were, however, some limitations to accessing the internet through data SIMs; where downloads were large or where there was a heavy demand on ‘live streaming’ of lessons, data was consumed rapidly. Even with ‘home’ broadband providers, companies felt the strain of the increased use due to demand from students being home schooled and from adults working from home.
It’s fair to say that at some point everyone experienced issues of buffering, crashing or slow download speeds. Learning platforms such as the Oak National Academy adapted and made their resources accessible offline. Keyworker and vulnerable school places also remained open throughout all of the lockdowns, and students who did not have access to ICT were classified as vulnerable and therefore allowed a place onsite with free Wi-Fi access and their own PC to work on in accordance with Covid-secure guidelines.
The national lockdowns have given us plenty to reflect on, but it goes to show how vital free Wi-Fi access is in our public forums and how important it is to preserve areas such as local libraries and cafes as spaces where people can study and stay connected.
Future-proofing the provision for online accessibility and narrowing the digital deficit is vital in legacy planning. With advancements in technology being developed at an accelerated rate and the huge increase in virtual learning platforms, it won’t be long before a blended approach to learning is adopted and some form of remote learning may well become the norm.
Consideration must be given, as part of legacy planning, to the fact that ultimately every student may need a device upon entry to school as readily as they need a pencil case. With the onset of technological advances and the movement towards an online approach to learning, it’s time to embrace the wonders of technology.
• Digital Access West Yorkshire: www.accesswy.org
• Oak National Academy: www.thenational.academy
• ESFA Update academies, 13 January 2022: http://bit.ly/3bvbfMR
Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
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