I am writing this now on one of the best representations of a pandemic object: the laptop. It perfectly embodies how we blend work and play in new ways during the COVID crisis. In an already screen-obsessed society, we are spending lockdown oscillating between emails, video conferencing, social media and streaming services. “What are you watching”, for instance, has become the ubiquitous opening question for videochat catch-ups with friends and family.
However, it is the lack of this object that is a palpable distinction in how drastically different people’s experiences of the COVID pandemic can be. Not having a home laptop or reliable broadband shows how this pandemic has exacerbated already widening social lines. This digital divide effects every aspect of lockdown, from the ability to work from home and socialise, to studying and entertaining yourself. This is especially true when it comes to education.
The scale of digital poverty is astonishing. It has been estimated that 1.9 million families in the UK have no access to internet, with tens of millions more on expensive pay-as-you-go mobile internet tariffs. It is the poorest and most vulnerable households that are being hit hardest with this. The digital divide was already a crisis for education, but many of the solutions have been shut down due to COVID, such as shared school computer access and public libraries.
Digital poverty is one of the main factors in gaps between how young people are educated during COVID. In a recent IFS study, children with families who were better off were studying on average 30% more than those children from poorer families. Many families are having to share a laptop, split between parents for work time and children for online education. Poorer families are often having to share a mobile phone with pay-as-you-go internet connections that are not conducive to online learning. In that same study, it also found that 79% of respondents whose children went to private schools were offered online learning as opposed to 47% from the poorest fifth of families who attended state school. This assumes that a child even has a laptop to access these online learning classes.
The digital divide is not a new problem. Nearly 20 years ago, a professor at MIT started the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative to help combat digital poverty. The small, green laptop was purposefully designed to resemble a lunchbox, and carried with it the, very valid, ethos that in our ever-increasing digital world, access to a computer was no longer optional. Headlines read that this would be the ‘laptop that would change the world’, and it famously had a hand crank that could power the laptop in the event that reliable power sources were not available. However, years of shifts in strategic goals, developments in technology, and the complex nature of the problem have all but ended the OLPC initiative. But, as COVID has shown, access to a laptop is no longer optional. Local schools, where able to, have been loaning laptops to students to take home for online learning. Yet this is only available where schools have laptops in the first place. Given this, digital poverty is only increasing the attainment gap between the wealthiest and poorest students, especially during the COVID crisis.
This is why several museums have shifted their work for COVID educational programmes, aware of the digital divide. The British Library, Natural History Museum and V&A Dundee have been circulating printed educational resources to local food banks. The V&A, through its primary education initiative #LetsMakeWednesdays, although shared on social media, brings art, design and performance learning to be completed away from screens using everyday objects around the house. Online outputs offer limitless potential for audiences and expansion, but educators are astutely aware of the children being left behind in digital poverty.
The education sector has long wrestled with structural inequalities which have given some children a better chance at a good education than others. First and foremost was the original introduction of publicly-funded schools in the nineteenth century, allowing any child to gain an education of at least some level. With regard to the problem of laptops today however, it is perhaps even more insightful to look at two programmes in the twentieth century which sought to level the playing field through the idea of universal access to certain objects that could help overcome barriers.
The first was the School Milk Act of 1946, employed to insure that all children were adequately nourished so that they could better concentrate on their studies during school hours. Any child 18 and under was entitled to a ration of a 1/3 pint of milk at school. In our collection, we have an example of a free glass milk bottle from United Dairies used in the programme. The initiative was gradually scaled back over the decades, and became a major point of contention in the 1970s when Margaret Thatcher reduced the age of those eligible for their 1/3 pint of milk to children 7 and under. Given the recent campaign to extend free school meals led by footballer Marcus Rashford, it shows how disrupting already-fragile stopgaps can have a major effect on children’s ability to learn and thrive.
The other program came from the NHS and addressed the issue of eyesight. Without good vision, getting a decent education would be immeasurably harder, and so a scheme was introduced to distribute free spectacles to any child who needed them, a handful of which we have in the collection. The scheme ran from 1946 to 1988, when it was phased out in favour of vouchers.
Coming back to the present day, the personal laptop remains a symbol of privilege during the pandemic—the lifeline to the outside world during lockdown. Like free school meals and access to glasses, it is key to look at what the barriers are for all students to learn. Access to a computer and internet is no longer optional, and this pandemic is showing how gaps in attainment are only increasing in times of crisis. The absence of a laptop puts children at greater risk of isolation and being further left behind. Perhaps, it is time to think again about programmes that insure universal access to essential tools for education, beyond the immediate crisis of the pandemic – with the laptop being towards the top of the list.
‘Learning during the lockdown: real-time data on children’s experiences during home learning’, Institute for Fiscal Studies, 18 May 2020.