Covid-19 and digital infrastructure: How the pandemic affects online education and resources

Covid-19 put digital infrastructures at schools and homes to the test. Policy makers discussed first lessons learned from the crisis during an online webinar, with a focus on Belgium, Finland and Estonia. As in many other areas, the outbreak of Covid-19 only amplified issues related to digital infrastructure that already existed prior to the crisis.

Many questions remain around the best use of digital tools by schools. What support do schools need to use tools efficiently, and safely? How to re-negotiate offers with digital providers? In the aftermath of the pandemic outbreak, teachers started using new tools, often benefitting from free offers provided in the market or by using the tool that they felt most comfortable with. Students became confused by the variety of digital tools that they were asked to use. The approach changed during the second lockdown. The school year 2021-2022, teachers moved to a blended approach, using digital tools to support hybrid learning scenarios.
A growing body of research is becoming available on the impact of Covid-19 on schools, also putting a spotlight on the digital divides that still exist at schools and homes across Europe. Interesting examples are a recent OECD publication, a European Commission report and a study on "Children's Experience With Online Learning During Coronavirus" by the Telia Company . The study asked 7000 students across 7 countries from the Nordic and Baltics about their online learning experience during times of Corona. Finland has with 67% the highest share of students that were happy with their distance learning experience during the first lockdown. Finnish schools and homes are often already well equipped. However, also in Finland there is quite some variation among schools, with new schools being better equipped digitally.
Karen Triquet of the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, highlights that the digital divides do not only concern access to devices and internet, but also the access to a quiet working space, the actual hours the student can use a device, as well as both students' and parents' digital skills according to the first results of a study on schools in Belgium. The latter is more important for younger children that are still in need of parental support for their learning. According to the study, 65% of parents in Belgium were never even asked whether they had a device at home. Of those asked, 40% said that they had to come up with agreements with their children who could use which device when.
The event participants concluded that the first lessons learned include that data on school and home access to digital infrastructure is key to adequate support. Moreover, there is a need to create further training opportunities for both teachers and school leaders on how to use different digital environments. The parent-school relationship is also crucial and has actually improved in cases since the outbreak of Covid-19. Finally, there is a need for specific social and emotional support for students and their families. Such support can also reduce the risk of the current situation having a negative long-term impact on students' school careers and job perspectives.