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Can technology level the playing field between students with differing economic environments?

28th March 2018

The debate relating to how leaners fare in schools in the north versus their counterparts in the south is once again featuring heavily in the news. England’s Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield says that children from poorer homes face an education gap that starts before school and widens over time.

The same debate is often had when school leavers go on to higher education, and according to statistics, Oxford University accepted fewer applicants from poorer neighbourhoods than any other mainstream institution – only 2.8% of its intake were from families in areas classified as the most difficult to engage in higher education. In the face of increasing fees for universities, what steps can we take to even things up?

Technology could be seen to balance the different economic backgrounds, and although there are some personal costs associated with owning technology, the benefits it delivers are unquestionably far-reaching when it comes to levelling the playing field between students. Perhaps of greatest significance is that once at university or college, much of the technology is provided for students by the institutions themselves in terms of the digital campus, and many cloud-based applications that students use from note-taking to organising their finances or social lives are free for them to use. The cost of accessing technology is generally falling and broadband access is considerably cheaper than ever before. Once the student is on campus, technology has the ability to remove many of the barriers to learning and provides the right resources for all.

If we step back out into the world pre-HE however, there is a long-held belief that to help children out of poverty and put them on the road to a good education you must help the parents – and this is where technology and specifically the digital campus comes to the fore. Any location with a Wi-Fi connection is technically a seat of learning, and the physical campus no longer has to be at the centre of university life. The digital campus allows more people to access education from wherever and whenever.

The creation of MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses delivers hope to those who may not have been in education for a long time, but have a desire to pick up wherever they may have left off. MOOCs typically only last 10 weeks, initially cost nothing but increasingly have a nominal charge, and the student gets a certificate at the end of the course to keep in their personal development folder. It’s a stepping stone back into the world of studying – a tester to build confidence before making a bigger leap of faith which they may not have otherwise taken at all were it not for online learning. A forgotten generation of adults can better themselves thanks to technology. Our digital world, where we access everything on a smartphone or tablet, is opening up new possibilities and actually creating new learners, and in turn, those learners have children who aspire to do the same.

Further, universities are recognising that the student lifecycle begins long before an application form is completed and that digital interaction with school leavers begins earlier and earlier thanks to social media, digital channels, video content and even virtual reality – hooking students in from every geography and background.

With increasing levels of digital learning and online collaboration, both adults and children are able to embrace technology and learn new things for relatively little cost and time. This, in turn, levels the playing field and delivers choices for all. Technology can only be a force for good when removing the obstacles that socio-economic class creates.

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