In our latest guest post, Beverly Clarke, a TechWomen100 award winner, education consultant, author, ambassador, mentor, podcaster, speaker, and founder of the Technology Books for Children charity, explores the potential role of AI in bridging educational inequalities.

Behind each new device upgrade, digital switch-over, ‘going paper-less’ feature, or ‘available on the app’ headline, is a stark reality: There is a digital divide; resulting in many children and their families being unable to participate equally in society.

In practice, the digital divide is not one thing; it encompasses many areas, such as affordability of equipment, access to the internet and devices, connectivity and quality of service, digital literacy, knowledge and skills, and more.

I am sure that all of us would like our children or the young people in our families to have an amazing future where they have access to every opportunity, resource, and tool needed to thrive in an increasingly digital society. After all, we understand the transformative power of technology and the critical role it plays in shaping the lives and careers of the next generation. However, this is not the case for many.

What the figures tell us

Figures from UK based charity the Digital Poverty Alliance show us a disturbing picture:

  • 1 in 5 children being home-schooled during the pandemic did not have access to an appropriate device such as a laptop;
  • 26% of young people do not have access to a laptop or similar device;
  • 53% of people offline can’t afford an average monthly broadband bill (this then impacts upon children within those households);
  • 2.5 million people are behind on their broadband bills (again this impacts upon children and young people within those households)

This ‘digital divide’ has far-reaching implications for our children’s education, employment prospects, and overall wellbeing.

These disparities not only hinder their academic achievement but also perpetuate systemic inequality and widen the gap between the digitally privileged and the digitally disenfranchised.

As an award-winning woman in tech, I understand the transformative potential of technology. I feel we have a responsibility to address the digital divide head-on and advocate for policies and initiatives that promote equitable access to technology and digital education. By bridging this gap, we can ensure that every child has the opportunity to potentially unlock a great future and to thrive in the digital age.

Digital moves quickly

We are in the “age of Artificial Intelligence”. Just three years ago generative AI (GenAI) was not known, yet here we are with GenAI being embedded almost everywhere! Could it be that within the education system AI may hold some of the answers to address the digital divide, through improving access to education? It is my opinion, with the right infrastructure, funding and training, AI will be able to offer and support the education system.

Some of the ways in which AI can be deployed to bridge the education divide are:

1. Personalised learning solutions – AI-powered adaptive learning platforms can be used to personalise educational content and delivery methods based on students’ individual learning styles, preferences, and abilities. This personalisation can help address disparities in learning outcomes by providing tailored support to students with diverse needs and backgrounds.

2. Automated administrative tasks – freeing up valuable teacher time. Additionally, data analytic tools can analyse educational data to identify trends, patterns, and areas for improvement in educational systems

3. Supporting learners with language needs. For example, AI based language translation tools can break down language barriers by translating educational materials, lectures, and instructional content in multiple languages. This can improve access to education for students from linguistically diverse communities and help them better understand course materials in their native languages.

4. Helping teachers with creating and curating educational content, resources, and assessments tailored to specific learning objectives and student needs. This can ensure that students have access to high-quality learning materials regardless of their location or socioeconomic status.

5. Supporting digital literacy and skills development, amongst students by providing interactive learning experiences and technology-focused projects. This can empower students to navigate the digital world effectively and participate in the digital economy, regardless of their socio-economic background.

6. Through virtual tutoring – use of AI chatbots can provide on-demand support and guidance to students outside of traditional classroom settings

Of course, we should also be educating pupils on the use of AI. Currently AI is not explicitly a part of the national curriculum. It is my hope that we start to see more teaching of AI incorporated into lessons at all levels. It is vital that learners see their role alongside AI.

Other areas for AI

AI also has the potential to play a significant role in various aspects of people’s health and wellbeing, as well as in creating employment opportunities. Let us take, for example, AI within healthcare diagnosis and treatment. AI is increasingly being used to assist healthcare professionals in diagnosing diseases and recommending treatment plans. This is done by analysing medical images, patient data, and clinical research. Also, AI diagnostic tools can help improve the accuracy and speed of diagnosis, leading to better health outcomes for patients.

AI tools can be used to analyse real-time health data from wearable devices, sensors, and mobile apps to detect early signs of health problems and provide timely interventions. Additionally, aspects of mental healthcare can be supported with chatbots and virtual assistants, alongside qualified professionals to offer personalised guidance, coping strategies and resources to help people manage their mental health and wellbeing. These examples and use-case scenarios should be included in classroom discussions, leading to our young people being empowered to question technology and to be tech innovators.

The future of work

Frequently we see headlines along the lines of “the jobs our children will do in the future have not been invented as yet” or “AI is taking away jobs“. The growing demand for AI technologies in healthcare, finance, manufacturing, and other industries is creating employment opportunities for AI developers, data scientists, engineers, prompt engineers, researchers and more. As AI continues to evolve and expand into each sector, there will be a need for skilled professionals to design, develop, and deploy AI solutions. There will be jobs, but not just as we currently know them!

In summary, this is by no means an exhaustive look at leveraging AI to bridge the digital divide. While AI may be part of the solution, remember that underlying this are connectivity, device and understanding issues.

What can you do?

My call to action for you is to consider what action you can take at an individual or organisation level. I am involved with both of the organisations below, which may provide a starting point for you.

Technology Books for Children – I’ve recently set up my own charity, to support and encourage children, teachers, parents and families to read for pleasure on tech topics. Our aim is to help children to be participating digital citizens through questioning all aspects of the digital world.

Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA) – I am a trustee for this charity. The DPA work to bridge the digital divide, through opening the door to vital resources like education, employment, healthcare, and beyond.

 

More about Beverly Clarke

Beverly Clarke is the author of published books, Computer Science Teacher – providing insight into computing education, with a view to attracting new entrants into this area of teaching – and the self-published series, The Digital Adventures of Ava and Chip, a children’s book series which aims to make tech concepts exciting, relatable and easy to understand.

Beverly has been a member of the BETT Advisory Board and is currently a BETT Awards judge, as well as a Trustee for the Learning Foundation. She is also a Small Business Sunday #SBSWinner in the small business network, run by former Dragons’ Den entrepreneur Theo Paphitis. Learn more here.

ITN Business’ upcoming programme on AI

News-style programme AI & Big Data: Empowering Tomorrow will explore the importance of ensuring responsible practices are in place, and the organisations using AI and big data as a force for good. The programme will be premiered at TechEx Europe, 1st-2nd October, in Amsterdam and will feature thought leaders TechUK and more to be confirmed.

There are commercial opportunities for leading organisations to be featured in the programme and spearhead their own news item.

If your organisation wants to share what you stand for and be part of this important conversation about AI and big data, please contact ITN Business’ Programming Directors Jamie Connolly and Isabella Sharp.