Scheme aimed at bridging digital divide and ensuring equality of access to education
Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris TD has announced up to 17,000 laptops will be distributed to disadvantaged third level students to assist with remote learning.
A fund for student devices worth €15 million was part of a €168 million package for further and higher education sectors to deal with the impacts of COVID-19.
This funding has already allowed higher education institutions and further education institutions place a bulk order of 16,700 devices for students across third level; further devices are also being procured individually by some institutions.
AIT has been awarded €272,480 of the funding to operate a means-tested laptop loan scheme. The laptops will be loaned to students during the academic year in order to facilitate their academic work.
An application process aimed at assisting disadvantaged students will be opened to registered students who meet the eligibility criteria for the scheme mid-September.
A report published by Accenture last month noted that a portion of the population is excluded from an increasingly digital society because of socioeconomic reasons. This is leading to a two-speed digital economy in which large groups of people are likely to be left behind.
This means-tested loan scheme aims to address such inequality and support eligible students in their programme of study in the new academic year.
Welcoming the funding announcement, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Registrar at AIT Frances O’Connell said that the scheme is directly addressing the digital divide that became apparent across third level education in March.
“The student is at the heart of our institute and supporting their needs and challenges is our upmost priority as the new academic year starts. This scheme is part of an overall €168 million funding package which enables our institute to put in place increasing student supports and access to mental health services,” Ms O’Connell explained.
“This particular scheme is aimed at ensuring disadvantaged students can access emergency remote learning where relevant during this challenging period. Access to a laptop device will vitally assist our students’ educational journey through third level.”
She continued: “The research conducted by AIT, post the introduction of the emergency restrictions from March 2020, highlighted the difficulty some students experienced in having access to a laptop to complete their studies remotely when they could no longer avail of the on-campus facilities. Their financial situation or the availability of only one device in a household presented an additional set of challenges for some third level students.
“We are delighted to be able to meet this demand by the recent substantial allocation of laptop devices under this scheme to AIT for the coming academic year that we sought to address when the emergency restrictions and closure of the campus arose on 12th March 2020. Having access to the necessary tools to complete one’s studies remotely during the coming semester is an essential and one less worry for our qualifying students in these uncertain times.”
Also welcoming the funding was AIT Access Officer Theresa Ryan who said: “This is a very welcome initiative for third level students who experience disadvantage. Addressing the barrier of the digital divide will make a significant difference throughout our students’ studies. An application process is currently being developed, and registered students who meet the eligibility criteria will be able to apply mid-September.”
Speaking at the announcement, Minister Harris said: “COVID-19 has disrupted many aspects of our lives. For students in third level, it has resulted in a changed college experience. This new academic year will mean many students will be attending courses online and will need access to devices. This investment will allow us to help 16,700 students access laptops and will ensure they can keep up to date with their studies. It will also go some way to bridging the digital divide, support students and ensure equality of access to education.”
Minister Harris added: “The focus will be on ensuring disadvantaged students will have access to the devices. We must ensure they don’t fall behind in their studies and ensure they can access this support fund also. We still have significant work to do to address the digital divide in Ireland but this will go some of the way to doing that.”
“The AIT Student Resource Centre is delighted with this announcement. We have an excellent track record in supporting our students and in particular those from disadvantaged circumstances,” said Student Resource Centre Manager Sarah La Cumbre.
“We look forward to managing the distribution of our allocated ICT supports carefully and fairly and will ensure that those who need them most will be helped. We are already receiving queries about how to apply, but students should note that details will be released shortly and will be available through www.ait.ie.”
The institute also offers support to students in need through to Student Assistance Fund. If students are having difficulty funding internet connectivity they can apply to the fund for financial support. Application forms for the Student Assistance Fund will be available from mid-September.
The grant funding for the devices will be provided to higher education institutions through the Higher Education Authority (HEA). The bulk order of laptops was organised by HEAnet, which provides internet connectivity and ICT services to education bodies throughout Ireland.
Athlone Institute of Technology is a research-led third level institute with an applied, industry-focussed offering, world-class research and development capabilities, and state-of-the-art facilities. Winner of The Sunday Times Institute of the Year 2020 and 2018, AIT is Ireland’s top-ranked institute and is on track to become the country’s next technological university. AIT also tops Ireland’s official league table for research and was listed in U-Multirank’s Top 25 Performing Universities in the World for Interdisciplinary Research in 2018 and 2019. For information relating to the institute’s undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, visit www.ait.ie.