Coronavirus widened digital gap for First Nations students

The coronavirus pandemic has widened the significant gap in digital access for First Nations students.

When national lockdowns closed schools and forced students into remote learning the hope was that their studies could continue online but this was not the case for First Nations children, particularly those in remote communities.

Young learners from the remote Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of South Australia using technology at school.Credit:Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation

New research from World Vision and the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation showed one in four First Nations households nationally had no internet access and many reported limited access to laptops and using mobile phones with poor reception for schoolwork.

First Nations households were also found to rely more on inefficient mobile data and as a result spend more of their household income on internet access.

Report author, World Vision First Nations policy adviser and Wiradjuri man Dr Scott Winch said the results were not surprising and swift action was needed.

“We know our students are well behind,” he said.

“It was obvious when learning went online, we were aware of the challenges; this disparity in internet access and mobile phone use that was really going to impact First Nations students even further.

“It’s not really good enough. Education is a child’s basic right.”

Dr Winch said post-lockdown other households would now be better able to identify with the issues First Nations families were facing.

“I think a lot of people can relate because they had to teach their kids at home and they can visualise not having internet access and how challenging it would be,” he said.

“Imagine writing a whole report just using a mobile phone.”

He said the problems were fixable and needed a combined government and private sector response.

“The private sector is the one that can offer infrastructure around this,” he said.

“To have an educated, skilled workforce in remote communities offers a lot of economic benefit too.”

Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation co-chair Tom Calma said technological innovation alone could not be relied upon and that a comprehensive strategy was needed to close the digital divide.

“Digital delivery and access are key determinants of both education and health,” he said.

“Non-access is significantly and detrimentally impacting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, irrespective of where they live.”

Victorian Aboriginal Education Association general manager Lionel Bamblett said the state government offering laptops and dongles to address digital access issues during remote learning had been successful.

“Any Koori student in need of equipment, they were given access,” he said.

“It went a long way to support those students.

“It still doesn’t counter that lack of face-to-face contact with a teacher but it worked to a high degree.”

The report’s release coincides with other studies showing persistent educational disadvantage for First Nations children.

The National Report on Schooling in Australia, produced by the Australian Curriculum and Assessment and Reporting Authority, released statistics in 2020 showing a growing attendance gap for Indigenous students.

The federal government’s Closing the Gap Report 2020 said Australia had not met goals in the numbers of Indigenous children at or above national minimum standards in reading and numeracy by 2018.

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