Closing the digital divide

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Whereas children in Birmingham enjoy excellent learning resources through technology in their schools, the reality is that many pupils do not have a computer at home. Learning therefore often stopped firmly at the school door, and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds increasingly suffered from a ‘digital divide’. Here, Sue Hulme discusses an innovative partnership between Birmingham City Council, Birmingham e-Learning Foundation, the National e-Learning Foundation and education ICT suppliers to address the issue.

In 2007 Schools Minister, Jim Knight, created a government ‘home access’ taskforce aimed at tackling the emerging problem of the so-called ‘Digital Divide’ head-on, where many children and young people from lower income families across England lacked adequate access to computers and the internet outside of school. With the emergence of an increasingly competitive workplace, it’s widely acknowledged that those young learners benefiting from continual interaction with IT both at home and in school hold advantages over those without.

With online based learning becoming an intrinsic part of the curriculum, and schools increasingly making use of technologies such as virtual learning environments (VLE), it became crucial the government’s home access initiative set in place long term goals for providing universal internet access in the home to prevent learning and learning practices from stopping at the school gates.

Early Successes

So two years on, what impact has the government’s agenda had? One city doing particularly well and bearing the fruits of the scheme is Birmingham, via a local initiative know as Student Access at Home (SA@H) building on the Computers for Pupils (CFP) grant. This particular initiative, led locally, is the result of an innovative partnership between Birmingham City Council (BCC), Birmingham e-Learning Foundation (Be-LF), the National e-Learning Foundation (Ne-LF) and education ICT suppliers, including RM. Under the main remit of the government’s proposed universal home access proposal, the Digital Birmingham partnership aims for every learner across the city to have, as an entitlement, the opportunity to access a connected computer at home and reap the associated benefits.

Valerie Thompson, chief executive of the National e-Learning Foundation commented, “Online and digital learning resources offer huge benefits to learners, but too many children in low income households are denied these opportunities because they don’t have access to a computer and the internet at home. It’s our aim to change that.”

The Birmingham SA@H project is now a flagship scheme under the government’s home access drive, having gained national recognition from BECTA and the National e-Learning Foundation as the most successful initiative of its kind in the UK. To date, over 18,000 pupils across 62 secondary schools in the Birmingham area have been able to gain access to a personal computer to use whenever and wherever they like –  whether learning at school or at home.  In addition, the project will also provide over 5,000 Wi-Fi connections to students who don’t currently have internet access at home. “There has been a lot of hard work in the background co-ordinating an effective partnership between Be-LF, Birmingham City Council and our suppliers, but it is really worthwhile” said Ian McCall, Head of Birmingham e-Learning Foundation.”

As part of Birmingham’s new initiative, all the schools involved have illustrated enthusiastic commitment to their students; setting up parents’ evenings to involve the entire family, and adapting teaching and learning methods where necessary to take full advantage of new learning environments under the SA@H programme. McCall added, “This is very much a team effort dedicated to the learning outcomes of Birmingham’s young people.”

Shining Examples

One school at the heart of the Birmingham CFP project is Kings Norton High School (KNHS), a mixed comprehensive for pupils aged 11-16. The school was selected by the Birmingham SA@H project and provided with a golden opportunity to transform learning and teaching through the provision of improved ICT. Patrick Horner, assistant head for teaching and learning at KNHS said, “When the project team contacted us and made an offer of some laptop computers we had the option of saying 'thank you', offering them to a few selected pupils and leaving it at that. Undoubtedly having their own laptop computer was to impact significantly on those students' learning and their progress overall, so as a school we decided to maximise on the potential that SA@H and Be-LF offered us.”

Acknowledging the benefits of ICT and wanting to build on the benefits the SA@H project provided, KNHS consulted with parents and its governing body to create a sustainable model that would take the investment further.

The team decided on a scheme where parents were invited to make a small voluntary financial contribution each month for three years. The initiative was well received and in turn allowed the school to buy more laptop computers and has provided every learner in key stage three (initially) the opportunity to use their very own laptop computer.

In practical terms however, there was much more involved for Patrick Horner and staff at KNHS than simply issuing pupils with laptops. Creating the right strategic approach for teaching the curriculum using the new ICT, and so truly transforming learning and teaching, became a crucial goal. Patrick explains, “We have upgraded our ICT infrastructure in the school to include a state of the art managed wireless network to support connectivity of all the learner devices. We’ve also developed and built, in-house, our own highly flexible VLE.”

Horner added, “As a result, screencasting, multimedia, podcasting and online collaboration are rapidly becoming features as common to KNHS as exercise books and whiteboards. What’s more we have also included parents, giving them their own secure log-on details so they too can access their child's curriculum and progress data and communicate quickly and easily with their child's teachers.”

Since the implementation of the scheme in October 2008, KNHS has seen a significant increase in learner engagement and enjoyment across all lessons. “Those learners that were slightly disaffected, for example those that shied away from speaking in class, would often avoid verbal and public communication, making it very difficult for teachers to fully engage them. However, our new ICT infrastructure has provided us with new ways of working with our learners, including the option to post work online and use online tools for providing feedback. Essentially, by offering alternative forms of communication we have given every child at KNHS a voice.” said Patrick Horner.

IT now permeates the majority of lessons at KNHS. As such, learners are exposed to ICT on a daily basis, eradicating the need for dedicated IT lessons. Not only has KNHS seen its learners excel in their understanding of IT, but the removal of dedicated IT lessons has freed up the timetable so more time can be committed to lessons such as Maths and English.

In addition, the new ICT infrastructure has allowed the school to radically review how the school day is organised. The annual timetable is now digital and as a result, fully flexible, allowing   teachers to review learning priorities on a quarterly basis, adapting the timetable as necessary to maximise learner development.

Reflection and looking to the future

For many schools across the country, like those in Birmingham under its SA@H project, the government’s agenda to attack the so-called ‘Digital Divide’ is clearly making good headway, allowing learners from all backgrounds to engage in 'anywhere, anytime' learning. Helping too, is the increased involvement of parents, allowing them closer access to their children’s learning processes and academic development.

Commenting on progress at KNHS, Patrick Horner concluded,”We are trying to bridge the 'Digital Divide' and foster in all our Key Stage three learners the skills that will make them valuable members of a highly skilled workforce of the future. Parents of our pupils have been overwhelmingly in support of the project, recognising the potential impact that the use of a personal laptop computer will have on their child's learning, progress and life chances.”

So what about tomorrow? It’s certainly an exciting time for learners, particularly with the marked successes experienced in Birmingham. The key now is to replicate the results achieved in areas like Birmingham across all of the UK. Les Lawrence, Birmingham City Council cabinet member for education said: “Nationwide we need to look into the extent at which some communities are facing a challenge in terms of their youngsters' opportunities for learning given the lack of technology available at home”. Lawrence added, “In the 21st century we need to provide young people with the best possible opportunities to learn, and the tools and environments that result in the highest success rates. Gaining access to ICT equipment is a crucial part of this process, helping young learners to secure a bright future”.

Sue Hulme, Business Manager, Local Authorities for RM Education.
www.rm.com

Taken from e-Learning Today.

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