A lower secondary school student does her homework online, Rome, January 2021. Photo credit: UNICEF Innocenti/Mannocchi
Florence/Milan, 8 February 2021 – Approximately 27 per cent of families reported not having suitable technology during the lockdown in Italy, and 30 per cent of parents said they didn't have time to support their children with remote learning, according to a new study based on interviews with 1,028 families across Italy. Six per cent of the children in the same sample were unable to take part in distance learning activities provided by their schools due to unstable connectivity or lack of devices.
The new study Learning at a Distance: Italian children’s experiences of remote schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, produced by the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti and Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, explores children’s and parents’ experiences of remote learning during the COVID-19 lockdown in Italy. It highlights the critical importance of affordable and stable access to the internet, as well as high-quality digital devices that support video-conferencing and digital educational platforms in order for all children to benefit from remote learning.
“Access to the internet and quality devices were necessary for children to participate in remote learning, but even though Italy is a well-connected country, many families struggled,” said Daniel Kardefelt – Winther, UNICEF Innocenti’s lead researcher on children and the internet. “Larger families found it difficult to keep up with the increased demand for devices for all school-going children. They could benefit from additional financial support if remote learning remains a long-term strategy.”
The survey was conducted in June 2020 as part of a project implemented in 11 European countries, coordinated by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center. The data collection in Italy was supported by UNICEF in cooperation with OssCom, Research Centre on Media and Communication, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan.
The Government of Italy allocated a substantial amount of resources to support remote learning during the lockdown; forty-six percent of families surveyed received new digital devices from their children’s school and one in four families were provided with a paid internet connection to enable remote learning.
“Our data are encouraging as they show that most children were motivated to participate in remote learning activities. Moreover, their parents noted positive outcomes of remote learning, namely greater autonomy in the use of digital technologies for schoolwork and greater independence in managing their school-related activities. However, we cannot underestimate the inequalities that exist also among internet-connected families, nor can we ignore the few children who dropped out of school with the shift to distant learning,” added Giovanna Mascheroni, Associate Professor of Sociology of Media at Università Cattolica. Mascheroni has been researching children and the internet since 2007.
The lockdown measures, coupled with online learning activities, have resulted in children spending more time using digital technology than before, with a considerable 4-5 hour increase in children’s screen time per weekday compared to the pre-lockdown period. This increase can be directly attributed to remote learning activities, while time for non-schooling activities has been reduced to only 2.3 hours compared to previous years, perhaps due to screen fatigue during the lockdown and remote-schooling period.
While parents might be concerned over their children’s increased screen time, the report highlights that the time children spent online on non-schooling activities could be their only opportunity to maintain a sense of normalcy by connecting with friends, relaxing or even exercising.
Parents tend to express more concern about the impact of the lockdown on their children’s learning, compared to children themselves. Overall, many students reported being enthusiastic and optimistic about remote learning and felt confident in their ability to adapt. However, younger adolescents (aged 10-11) were slightly more likely to express concern about their ability to do so, indicating a need to provide additional support to younger students who may have weaker digital skills and less experience from a formal learning environment.
Parents interviewed also expressed the need for stronger support from their child’s school. Eighty-two per cent of respondents wanted schools to integrate more educational activities that would allow for interaction between students, followed closely by more guidelines on how to support children's remote learning and psychological well-being.
Although these findings point to various areas of improvement, parents also noted areas of growth in their child’s school life during the lockdown period. Sixty-one percent of parents believe their children became better at organizing their school activities as compared to the pre-lockdown period; and more than 70 per cent of parents said their children were more autonomous while using digital technology for school.
Taken together, these findings highlight that, in addition to learning, children might benefit from more concerted efforts to address the wellbeing and mental health of children, which may improve the overall remote learning experience for both children and parents.
- Italy was the first country in Europe to implement a nation-wide lockdown. The following recommendations coming from the experiences of children and parents in Italy with remote learning can provide important messages to countries facing similar challenges.
- Provide families across Italy with additional resources and improved connectivity to ensure digital remote learning is accessible to all children, especially those from poor and marginalized households.
- Ensure access to digital devices, particularly for larger households who tend to have fewer digital devices per child.
- The Italian government should assess students’ learning outcomes, identifying areas of greatest learning loss, to tailor support to students and subjects most impacted, and to improve remote learning delivery in the future.
- Encourage teachers and caregivers to provide younger children, who also tend to have weaker digital skills, with more support to fully benefit from digital remote learning.
- Equip parents with the tools and the time to support their children’s remote learning. This includes school-provided resources and guidelines on how best to support children’s learning, in addition to employers establishing flexible-working arrangements and shorter workdays if necessary.
- Develop methods to improve the social and extracurricular aspects of remote schooling.
Funding for this research has been provided to UNICEF by the Government of Italy.
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