The Challenges of Addressing Digital Poverty at a National Scale
Mark O’Leary, Head of Network Access, Jisc

This presentation will set out the various routes of intervention into the delivery of connectivity to disadvantaged learners that Jisc has researched over recent times, the obstacles in their way, and the few that show signs of success.


Mitigating Digital Poverty: the University of Strathclyde’s approach to digital inclusion
Dr Stephanie McKendry, Head of Access, Equality and Inclusion; and Andrew Cooper, End User Computing Manager, University of Strathclyde

In common with others across the sector during the pandemic, as Strathclyde pivoted to online learning, we risked excluding those without their own devices. A further issue was lack of internet connectivity, with recent research from NESTA suggesting that one in seven adults in Scotland experience data poverty, which in turn, widens inequalities. Where students had devices, many were unsuitable for their needs or shared with children or siblings who required access during school closures. This presentation will discuss Strathclyde’s digital inclusion schemes which distributed laptops and wifi grants to those in need. The session will cover the digital needs of the target group, how the scheme operated, virtual desktops and use of Intune for imaging.


Responding to Digital Poverty
Lise Foster, Associate Director IT Services, University of the Arts London

Our students need access to a variety of specialist equipment in workshops and computer labs so like all Universities we had to move quickly to deliver learning and teaching through social distancing into complete lockdown, navigating through high Covid costs, uncertain recruitment outcomes and fee income, and a heavy dependency on campus facilities. This is UAL's experience.


Virtual desktops as a mean to reduce digital poverty
Chris Parry, Associate Director of Partnering and Innovation; and Luis Neves, Digital Learning Director for the Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham

Over the last decades, we witnessed a move towards the digitalization of education. This includes an increase in the use of digital studying resources, particularly, LMEs, but also an increase in the frequency, importance and scale of assignments, coursework and projects that required computations resources. These activities are particularly relevant in STEM subjects, where specialized software with, frequently, demanding computations requirements form a cornerstone of the teaching process.

This move had the unintended consequence of further disadvantaging students that cannot afford expensive computers or the software necessary to complete the projects. In the past, Universities have addressed this issue by providing computer rooms that would be used for Teaching activities and for independent work outside timetabled times. However, although providing all students with the necessary kit, this still disadvantages students without the financial ability to buy appropriate devices, by restricting the hours they can work on the projects, limiting their ability of cooperate with colleagues outside the University.

Virtual desktops are an alternative to this role of computer rooms, by providing every student access to the computational power and software they required from a range of devices, including low spec laptops or desktops, shared computers, tablets or, potentially, smart phones. Since computation work is done in remote servers, all students get the same specs, independently of the characteristics of their own devices. Although this still requires the access to a device, this can be a much lower cost device that, not only will be cheaper for the student to acquire but allow the University to support a greater number of students, as the cost per device is significantly lower.

The University of Nottingham has deployed, in cooperation with Microsoft, a Windows Virtual Desktop solution in 2020 as a response to Covid. This solution provided all students access to the computation power and the software required to complete coursework, research projects and assignments without computer rooms. Our experience in the use of these solution has shown that it is robust and reliable enough to allow the use for all digital tasks our students face. Furthermore, it became clear that for particularly complex task, like 3D modelling, it is possible to deliver bespoken desktops which far exceed the capacity and speed of the computers of any student, providing a smoother working experience.

As students return to campus, the challenge will be supporting the students that do not own any suitable device, identifying the requirements necessary to make use of the Virtual Desktops, evaluating the potential for low-cost solutions like tablets, Chromebooks, or low spec Windows devices, combined with on-campus screens, keyboards, and mice.