Digital Learning and Disadvantage During COVID-19

17 Apr 2020
Many learners that do not have access to the internet and an appropriate device are at an immediate disadvantage. While access is a key issue, the issue of educational disadvantage in this area is complex.

AONTAS continues to play an influential role on the recently formed Department of Education and Skills COVID-19 Tertiary Education Steering Group and AONTAS CEO Niamh O’Reilly chairs a Working Group called the Mitigating Educational Disadvantage including Community Education Issues (MED Group)

As the MED Group enters its 6th meeting of working to make recommendations regarding issues impacting marginalised groups and community education, this blog outlines some of the main take away points of a recent Discussion Paper produced by the MED Group. 

This Paper is entitled Digital Learning and Disadvantage across Tertiary Education – A Discussion Paper

The other two Discussion Papers are

These Papers form part of the overall continuation of AONTAS’ activities on behalf of all its members and all learners at this unprecedented time. This third Discussion Paper produced by the MED Group[i]  makes clear that educational providers must first and foremost continue to focus on the holistic needs of the educational community they serve. This includes listening to the needs of learners and making accommodations based on this feedback.

This crisis exposes the many inequities in our education systems – from the broadband and computers needed for online education, through to the supportive environments needed to focus on learning. This issue of inequality in relation to digital learning is right across our education systems from Early Years to Tertiary Education. The crisis has disrupted learning for all students and teachers, at all levels in the system, and ALL have been forced to reimagine learning at a distance at very short notice. Education systems have responded to this call with enthusiasm and dedication but still learners, at all levels, are struggling with this new reality. Educators have acted swiftly to move aspects of learning online but experts agree, such transitions will not be easy and they will undoubtedly further expose existing digital divides. Simply put many learners, that do not have access to the internet and an appropriate device, will be at an immediate disadvantage. While access is a key issue, the issue of educational disadvantage in this area is complex.

By making recommendations that focus on the two main areas of Learner and Educator Capacity the Paper provides some measures for mitigating negative outcomes for learners, particularly those from disadvantaged communities who face the greatest potential negative impact of this crisis. Importantly, the Paper also notes that these recommendations are not exhaustive and that digital learning is not a cure-all for every challenge posed by the COVID-19 emergency. Nothing can replace in-person learning experiences, and we should not expect that digital learning can replicate all the wrap-around services designed to support learner success.

Regarding learners, the main challenges outlined include access to digital technology and the internet, as well as to learning resources such as instructional material and student assignments, as well as issues surrounding time management and self-directed learning skills. The key recommendations made here are

In terms of educators and their capacity to deliver quality education there are another set of equally important areas that need to be considered. These include professional development required to deliver effective digital instruction; access to the best digital tools they need to effectively deliver instruction from home; and their ability to stay connected to learners outside of, or in addition to, digital tools like social media platforms. The key recommendations made here are to

This is an unprecedented and complex challenge for all education systems. Providing solutions to the issues learners face in continuing their education remotely and online will vary according to their personal circumstances and the area of tertiary education they are learning in. There is no one-size-fits-all solution here and it appears that different sectors will need to provide tailored supports to their learners, particularly in relation to providing them with access to online learning resources.

In addition to these Discussion papers and the activities of the MED Group AONTAS is continuing to gather the experiences of its members and is finding out from learners across the country what their challenges are in order to (a) raise the issues to decision makers at the highest levels of government and (b) ensure that the solutions being proposed do not leave any learner behind. For more information on this work visit Click Here.

To contact AONTAS about the challenges you are facing in terms of provision and learning please email or Freephone 1800 303669.


i MED Working Group Members (The papers do not reflect the views of all members or their institutions):

Niamh O’Reilly AONTAS (Chair), Dr Leah Dowdall AONTAS (Secretary), USI, ETBI/CDETB, HEA, Dearbháil Lawless AONTAS, Dr Eve Cobain AONTAS, NALA, TU Dublin, DES, SOLAS, AHEAD, THEA, QQI, Pavee Point, NFETL, IT Tralee, NCGE, Longford Women’s Link, SHEP/Cork Community Education Network, UCD, Maynooth University, Dr Michael Hallisey, Professor Tom Collins, Dr Fergal Finnegan


Addtional Information

AONTAS Membership and Engagement Update Weekly Webinars

Click here for more information on these weekly webinars with the AONTAS CEO. These webinars are open to members only. Further information on AONTAS membership is available here

Outputs from the Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Working Group