Digital connectivity, education and poverty eradication
7th December 2020
Author: Dr. Emma Stone
Ensuring quality education for all is a vital tool in the fight to eradicate poverty. We know this from the everyday experience of communities and countries worldwide, as well as rigorous research and practice evidence. It is enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals.
It has taken a global pandemic to recognise the importance of digital skills and connectivity for both poverty eradication and education.
At Good Things Foundation, we describe ‘digital inclusion’ as:
- having access to the internet (affordable data and an appropriate device);
- having the digital literacy and life skills to use the internet safely;
- having the digital confidence to keep on learning as digital evolves.
Even before the pandemic, evidence was clear that digital disadvantage correlates strongly with educational, social and economic disadvantage. In the UK, people are at least three times more likely to be digitally disadvantaged if they live in poverty and have no educational qualifications (Ofcom 2020). Although older age is a major factor, a staggering 44% of those who are ‘offline’ in the UK are under sixty years old (Lloyds 2020).
COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of digital transformation in systems, services and lives. It has also exposed the digital divide, and the risks this divide presents for deepening poverty and widening inequalities in education and employment. In our work with community organisations across the UK and Australia, we’ve seen how digital exclusion locks children out of home-learning - children who are already more disadvantaged, but their families don’t have enough devices or can’t afford data connectivity (Kelly 2020). We’ve seen how digital exclusion restricts the ability of schools to support social mobility - undermining attempts to reduce the attainment gap between rich and poor children. We’ve seen an increased awareness of the benefits of online education and adult learning. But adults who could benefit most face the greatest barriers if they cannot afford connectivity, and if they lack the know-how and confidence to make use of online learning (Good Things 2020). This at a time when increasing digital literacy and life skills is more important than ever for making a living or staying employed.
Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.
In the UK, it is estimated that around 9 million adults struggle to use the internet on their own, while 17 million adults lack all the essential digital skills we need for living and working in the UK today (Lloyds 2020).
Globally, the United Nations estimates the fallout from the pandemic threatens to push over 70 million people into extreme poverty and millions more will be trapped in relative poverty; already by April 2020, the pandemic had resulted in nearly 1.6 billion children and young people being out out of school, while remote learning is out of reach for at least 500 million students (UN 2020). Education is a key to social mobility and poverty eradication. Fixing the digital divide - for children and young people, and for adults of all ages - has become more important than ever.
Fifteen years ago, Nelson Mandela said: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.”
The digital divide is a solvable problem. Here are some ways we can move forward.
First, to update the Sustainable Development Goals to reflect the significance of digital. Digital literacy and life skills merit equal status to basic literacy and numeracy for children and adults alike. The ‘soft’ infrastructure of community and online support to build digital skills is as important as the ‘hard’ infrastructure (mentioned in Goal 9) of providing universal and affordable internet access.
Second, governments - as well as industry, academia and civil society - need to recognise that digital is (fast becoming) an essential utility. Already in the UK, digital connectivity is essential to earn and learn; to spend and save; to stay informed and connected; and to access health, welfare and other public services. Digital inclusion is a universal need.
Third, schools, colleges and universities have an important part to play in ‘designing in’ digital inclusion. How can online learning be designed in ways which use less data and are more inclusive for those with lower digital skills? What workforce development is needed to ensure that educators themselves have digital access, skills and confidence? What are the opportunities for leaders in research, policy and practice to work with communities and digitally excluded groups to co-design solutions, and to recognise the valued role of informal, community learning providers in building digital life skills? How can we build the evidence base and datasets that enable us to track the links between digital, educational, and wider inequalities?
These are some of the areas we’re taking forward at Good Things Foundation. We believe that digital skills deliver better lives, stronger communities, and fairer economies but only if we ensure that every child and every adult has the support they need to be digitally included.
Dr. Emma Stone
Good Things Foundation
Director of Design, Research, and Communications
Ofcom (2020), Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report 2020
Kelly, A (2020), ‘Digital divide ‘isolates and endangers’ millions of UK’s poorest’ in The Guardian (28 April 2020)
Lloyds (2020), Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index 2020
Good Things Foundation (2020), COVID-19 Response Report
UN (2020), United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (accessed August 2020)
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