In planning the pilot, we were conscious of the impact of digital poverty and inequality on participants. Many forced migrants rely on their mobile phone to access information, services and learning online (Kukulska-Hulme, 2010) but it is difficult to fully engage with a synchronous online course on a phone, and to practice essential study skills such as essay writing. Online sessions also use a lot of bandwidth that would use up participants’ mobile data.
We carried out an audit to determine what devices and internet access participants had prior to to the programme. We then partnered with Connecting Scotland, a Scottish government-funded initiative to help people get online through the provision of Chromebooks and MiFi devices. They trained two Digital Champions who learners could contact, one in Bridges Programmes and one in the OU in Scotland. Our pilot wouldn’t have been possible without this support to ameliorate digital inequalities.
We appreciated Connecting Scotland’s generous provision of Chromebooks for learners. We are particularly grateful that this support was inclusive of asylum seekers. In the UK, there is a deliberately “hostile environment” to asylum seekers that was not evident in this Scottish government-funded initiative.
Initially, the delivery of devices was delayed so learners received them very shortly before the pilot began. This meant they had no time to familiarise themselves with the devices. Throughout the pilot we identified challenges related to the choice of devices. Though some learners were confident in using laptops, none were unfamiliar with a Chromebook and struggled to use it. One learner resorted to using their mobile phone instead.
The formative assessment required learners to produce a Word (or similar) document to write and submit an essay. The Chromebooks did not have Word and many of the learners had no experience in creating a similar document. Partners and tutors worked together to try and find a workaround, such as working collaboratively on a document created by the tutor, but the university’s IT security systems did not allow non-OU students to access shared documents. In the end, learners submitted essays in the body of emails, which tutors then converted to Word to track changes and comments, then converted to PDF and attached to emails so learners would be able to read the feedback.
Considerations for using Zoom
During the planning, partners had requested that it be delivered via Zoom, as this was the platform participants were most used to in engaging with. The OU’s IT policy does not allow Zoom and we had to obtain special permission to use it for the pilot. Another security requirement was that meeting requests had to be sent out for the Zoom sessions at the beginning of each week. This meant that learners did not have the full series of sessions in their calendars and could only find the links through the email.
We found that, although learners were more familiar with Zoom compared to Teams for example, some struggled to access the platform for every session. Zoom functions did not always work for everyone, possibly depending on the device they were accessing it from.
The tutors were also less familiar with Zoom than other platforms, as the OU uses Adobe Connect for tutorials and Microsoft Teams for staff meetings. They were learning about Zoom functions and incorporating these into sessions as the pilot evolved.
Developing digital literacies in an online context
The digital skills many forced migrants have developed for accessing services and communicating using their mobile phone may differ from those they need to undertake a study skills programme online. This created inequities for learners who had not used these devices and tools before (Al Rashid and Hettiarachchi, 2021). While the pilot considered the impact of digital poverty and took steps to address this in partnership with Connecting Scotland, our focus had been on providing devices rather than developing digital literacies.
The pilot would have benefitted from a longer lead-in time to familiarise learners with the devices and developing the specific digital literacies learners (and tutors) would need. One of the challenges is the inherent difficulty of teaching digital skills online, as learners may require these skills in order to access the teaching. The partners felt that this support would be more effectively provided in a face-to-face context, which would enable them to demonstrate these skills more effectively.
In evaluating the programme, both learners and partners stated a preference for a period of face-to-face delivery to enable this before the online sessions began. At the time, staff involved were still working remotely due to the continuing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic so a blended approach wasn’t possible.
For any future delivery, we would develop what Bali (2019) calls a “digital confidence profile” with learners in addition to auditing their need for devices. This would identify the digital literacies they want to develop. We would build in preparation time before the taught programme began, where learners could familiarise themselves with devices and build their confidence and skills with the support of the relevant partner organisation. This could allow for a shorter taught programme as learners would be more ready to engage, for example a 4-week digital skills preparation and 6-8 week online study skills programme.
In a previous article Gill co-authored with Gabi Witthaus (2020), we argue that it’s not technology that supports learning, but “organisations using open tools in online spaces, and engaging in practices such as openness, partnerships and co-creation, can support learner autonomy and agency”. Learner autonomy and agency could have been better supported from having a web space with all the slides, content and session links in the same place so they could work through them in their own time. This would be a challenge for the OU’s IT security protocols but it could possibly be hosted on a partner’s website or a standalone WordPress or Moodle site.
 MiFi is a portable WiFi hotspot that provides internet access without the need for a broadband connection.
Al Rashid, A. and Hettiarachchi, T. (2021). ‘Home Schooling – “Don’t Stress Too Much”’, Cov19: Chronicles from the Margins, 11 February. Available at: https://cov19chronicles.com/home-schooling-dont-stress-too-much (Accessed: 19 May 2023).
Bali, M. (2019). ‘Choose Your Digital Literacies Pathway’, CORE 2096/Equity Unbound Assignment, Fall 2019 / Spring 2022.
Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2010). ‘Mobile learning as a catalyst for change’, Open Learning, Vol.25, No.3, November 2010, 181-185.
Witthaus, G. & Ryan, G. (2020). Supported mobile learning in the “Third Spaces” between non-formal and formal education for displaced people. Zenodo [Preprint]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4293565. [CC-BY-SA]