Lifelong Learning, Online Teaching, and the Digital Divide

By Professor Jaqueline Stevenson, Director, Leeds Lifelong Learning Centre and Lindsey Fraser, Deputy Director (Partnerships), Leeds Lifelong Learning Centre

The current Covid-19 pandemic has cast a dark shadow over much of our economy and our society. In doing so it has also highlighted profound social and economic inequalities, including inequities in access to learning. In many ways never has fair access to lifelong learning become more important. Offering online learning has the potential to enable many more learners to engage in ways which on-campus delivery has previously not been able to do. At the same time the pandemic has also reignited concerns over the deep digital divide which exists.

Recognising Inequalities

Much of the concern around the digital divide has, to date, focused on young people. The needs of mature learners have been significantly less visible, despite the fact that many adult learners may be prioritising children’s learning over their own - including access to laptops or to broadband. It is reassuring that those providers who are financially able to, are working to address this. However, tackling the digital divide must go above and beyond the provision of ‘kit’. Delivering successful online learning means that we must be even more alert than ever to the potential inequalities between those are able to engage, participate, learn, and succeed. Ineffective online pedagogies, a failure to build effective student support or develop a sense of belonging, or insufficient flexibility in approaches to learning, may lead to feelings of isolation, exacerbate self-doubt, create stress and insecurity, and worsen the digital divide.

Building an Online Community

We are conscious that many of our students in the Leeds Lifelong Learning Centre lack confidence in online delivery and we have needed to find ways to put them at their ease with opportunities for informal conversation, providing constant reassurance that any mistakes made verbally or in chat don’t matter, and sharing our own digital blunders. We have developed a yammer group to address student isolation and enhance peer support, as well delivered a lunchtime informal drop-in with the Student Support Officer entitled ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’. We have established a regular Academic Skills Room for students to gather, ask questions and discuss issues alongside flexible 1-1 support on the phone and online through Teams. We have produced a mature student online study guide, offered essay writing interactive sessions tailored to mature students, and run lunchtime get togethers and evening quizzes. Our mature student learning champions have also posted video clips supporting both those who are currently learning as well as those who might wish to do so in the future.

In short, we are seeking to encourage as much interactivity as possible both with staff and with other students. This means checking access to technology and student feelings related to learning online; creating a supportive and empathetic online atmosphere; providing regular updates/ reminders; clearly sign posting online learning, with direct links to the resources (so students don’t need to find them); offering multiple modes of communicating with students; and, above all, using humour and modelling our own online imperfections 

Moving Forward

There are multiple other examples of good practice in online learning across the sector, of course, and the feedback from those engaging in programmes at our Centre is that we are largely doing a good job. Our challenge now and in the future is to support those we are unable to contact, or who have additional requirements including specific learning difficulties which need to be supported in an online space. In addition, many of us in the lifelong learning sector have not been trained as online educators. Similarly, most of our mature and part-time students did not sign up to be online learners. It is essential that we continue to experiment and share practice and reflections whilst having empathy and compassion in supporting our peers, students and ourselves during these unprecedented times. Whatever happens next, online learning is here to stay.


You can join Inside Government in November to hear from the Department for Education, CBI and the Social Mobility Commission about the next steps for lifelong learning after the Covid-19 pandemic.


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