Overcoming the digital divide to inspire future engineers  

EngineeringUK CEO Dr Hilary Leevers writes about how the digital divide has impacted careers provision in schools.    

The pandemic has shone a light on a whole host of inequalities, the most obvious being health. Wealth inequalities are also more apparent especially in some new areas – who can afford to self-isolate or work in frontline shift jobs that don’t provide sick pay? Another inequality much more visible since the pandemic started is the digital divide.

Schools and teachers have had to step-up their digital offering during lockdowns to ensure pupils can learn from home, but we know that digital access continues to be a barrier. With many disadvantaged pupils struggling to afford hardware and data. In addition, superfast broadband is still limited in many – often rural – areas of the country.

We’re calling on the government to urgently develop a fully funded digital learning strategy for schools. The first step needs to be to close the digital divide so that no young person is left behind

Another casualty of digital inequality can be access to careers information, advice and guidance, which already had patchy provision. Many students from disadvantaged backgrounds miss out on social capital their peers might have at home and digital barriers to online quality careers guidance can be another blow to their life chances.

Our latest report ‘Securing the future’, co-authored with a number of partners, found that almost half of 200 teachers surveyed said that some of their pupils had not been able to access online or virtual careers provision due to a lack of technology or internet at home. And schools with a higher percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) were more likely to say that a lack technology or internet at home was a barrier to participating in careers provision – nearly 70% compared to 36% of schools with below average FSM – highlighting the impact of the digital divide.

digital divide
Digital access has been a barrier to learning for many students during successive lockdowns. Image: stock.adobe.com

Why is careers provision important? Improving young people’s knowledge of engineering, the breadth and availability of careers it offers, and the pay they can expect, is key to attracting more, and a more diverse group of, young people into engineering careers, opening up these careers to young people who would not otherwise have seen themselves taking that route. Research conducted by EngineeringUK clearly shows that young people who know more about what engineers do are more likely to perceive the profession in a positive way and to consider a career in engineering – in fact, young people attending a STEM careers activity were over 3 times as likely to consider a career in engineering than those who had not.

We can create a win-win situation if more young people from all walks of life could be part of the engineering workforce. As well as filling skills gaps, a diverse workforce is better placed to solve the challenges of the future because it has more creativity and less group think.

Over the last year, EngineeringUK has moved lots of our engagement online – for example, the Big Bang Digital has replaced our usual in-person Fair, this and last year. Many others have done the same and we’ve adapted Neon, our platform that helps teachers find engineering experiences and inspiring careers resources, to include online activities. We’ve also worked in partnership with The Careers & Enterprise Company to develop a new website that draws on the learnings of our Corporate Members in the design, delivery and implementation of virtual work experience.

But we don’t yet know how effective virtual experiences are and how they compare with their in-person counterparts. I’m a big fan of measuring impact, and we’ll be looking at what sorts of audiences we reach digitally, and how different groups of young people are affected by their experiences. We should make no assumptions about what will work to engage a young person and excite them in the potential of engineering. My hunch is that we will end up with a greater range of online activity than before the pandemic, alongside reintroduced in-person experiences. However, whatever the effectiveness of digital engagement, we must make sure that we have in-person alternatives until the digital divide is eliminated.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology and Digital Access for All have drawn together many organisations to form the Digital Poverty Alliance to try and coordinate various efforts to ameliorate the digital divide with an aim to end digital poverty, especially for children, over the next 5-10 years. Alongside these sector-led efforts, we’re calling on the government to urgently develop a fully funded digital learning strategy for schools. The first step needs to be to close the digital divide so that no young person is left behind. The second is for the government to look at how schools are supported to integrate a digital approach into their everyday activities. In the long run, we hope that this approach will help overcome the current patchiness of STEM careers provision in schools, giving more young people the opportunity to be inspired by a career in engineering.