UK tech sector steps into the breach to help close digital divide
When the government ordered the closure of schools a year ago to halt the spread of coronavirus, it expected teachers to deliver lessons online. For most households, the shift to remote education was manageable – they had laptops and WiFi so their children could log into classes around the kitchen table. But for the one in ten households without a computer, the closure of classrooms effectively shut their children out of education with potentially dire consequences for learning.
The UK tech sector stepped into the breach to help families in need. Schemes sprang up across the country from grassroots efforts to industrialised processes and succeeded in getting digital devices safely into schools and colleges so children could keep up with school work and stop falling behind through no fault of their own.
As a big believer in digital inclusion, I will use this blog to highlight some examples of our industry’s outstanding response to this crisis, address some of the wider issues and conclude with a clear and simple message to schools and colleges – if your pupils and students need support, the UK tech sector is here to help. This commitment has been demonstrated up and down the country with UK tech companies and their people using their skills, expertise and resources to help close the digital divide.
In rural Hampshire, Roger Baskerville of software consultancy Triangulate Distribution became acutely aware of the need through his wife’s experience as a teacher at their local school. Some of the children were trying to use smartphones for remote learning – a near impossible task with small screens and patchy mobile coverage. Roger, a member of our Local Public Services Committee, secured donated devices and helped refurbish them for distribution to low-income families.
In the capital, technology solutions provider CDW UK has partnered with the London Grid for Learning charity on a national procurement for up to one million Chromebooks and Winbooks. Bridge the Divide aims to save schools millions of pounds and increase access to devices and technology for children from all backgrounds and has distributed more than 120,000 devices to date. Our committee member Neil Bailey, head of education at CDW, has been closely involved in this initiative, which has delivered to schools as far afield as Cumbria and Devon.
At a national level, the Daily Mail launched its Computers for Kids campaign in partnership with IT supplier Computacenter to reprocess thousands of old laptops. It has raised more than £13m in cash and equipment. Our industry group techUK is proud to support this campaign by encouraging our many members to get involved and donate devices. The campaign complements the Department for Education’s Get Help with Technology programme, which has so far delivered more than one million devices to schools across the country.
These are just some examples of the outstanding work by the UK tech sector in response to the coronavirus crisis. Sadly, the pandemic has exacerbated many of the deep-seated inequalities that already existed in society and while much progress has been made in getting devices into disadvantaged households, longer term issues remain – not least the availability of data.
At IntechnologySmartCities, we have been pushing the frontier for digital inclusion for years through our rollout of free wireless broadband in towns and cities across the UK and helping more than 1.2m users access the internet free of charge. We are now working to spread gigabit broadband at pace without the disruption and cost of digging up roads. Other issues include the standard and suitability of online content and online safety and digital literacy. I know my colleagues across the industry are working hard to solve these.
Public servants have performed outstandingly well in so many respects during the pandemic. We want our local authority partners to know that we are here to help with the provision of technology so that young people do not get left behind just because they cannot get online at home. We want every young person to be able to take part in the digital economy and access public services online. Working together, we can increase digital inclines across the nation. Local authorities can save time and money by reaching out to us at techUK.
• Natalie Duffield is chief executive of IntechnologySmartCities and vice chair of techUK’s Local Public Services Committee