Volunteers from wLw at a distribution campaign in Zurich
"We live in 2022 and in many places it is still not understood what role a laptop plays in education and in everyday participation." The words of the founder and managing director of Wir lernen weiter (wLw for short) are clear and unequivocal, because even this summer, according to the association, many apprentices and students throughout Switzerland are at risk of having to acquire devices with requirements that are clearly too high. The concept of "Bring your own Device" (BYOD for short, or in German "Bring your own laptop to class"), has become firmly entrenched in the world of education, and as a result apprentices everywhere have to bring their own laptop after primary school. Financially, this is problematic when schools are required to provide high quality equipment - especially for those living in poverty. Today, it is no longer possible to complete an apprenticeship or a course of study without a laptop, as many teaching materials and documents are now only distributed digitally.
The "Wir lernen weiter" association has been distributing laptops to families and individuals affected by poverty since April 2020 in cooperation with many communal and cantonal social welfare offices and other organisations. Since then, around 5,000 laptops have found new users who would otherwise not have been able to afford this equipment. The time before the summer holidays is not easy for the team of Wir lernen weiter (wLw for short): In many places, people are desperately looking for cheap laptops that have to meet ever higher requirements. For example, you can find input-capable screens ("touchscreens") on many letters of requirement from vocational schools. "We understand that this makes sense in technical and design professions. But for us, understanding stops when the commercial clerk or the retail trade specialist has to fulfil such criteria," says Schär. The problem is not that touch screens don't make sense, but the differences in procurement costs are massive.
Not only touch screens, but also other requirements raise question marks for the team. For example, some schools stipulate that equipment must not be older than three years. Other requirements, such as large hard disks, powerful memory and processors, lead to existing devices being interpreted as too old or too inefficient and a new purchase seems unavoidable due to the BYOD strategy. Such policies have serious consequences for individual families: "In practice, parents or learners receive a letter with demands they do not understand. In many job profiles, touch screens are clearly optional, because we don't have any use cases, unless you want to edit PDFs - you can do this without a touch screen without any problems. We reckon that about 3/4 of all vocational schools feel that touch screens are necessary, even though teaching can be done without them". wLw gives a simple example: For CHF 500 you can already get good devices that are sufficient for everyday school life. If, on the other hand, you want a touch screen, the price quickly doubles.
In 2019/2020, around 8.5% of all inhabitants of Switzerland were affected by poverty, and around a further 15.4% were at risk of poverty. Single-parent households and people with a migration background are particularly affected. Schär believes that if every fourth person in Switzerland lives in poverty or is threatened by it, simple measures can make a big difference.
Recommendations for action
Schär adds that there are also good examples where the vocational schools point to external tablets that enable touch functionalities. The prices here were between CHF 50-80. There are also schools that list the touch screen as optional. Other educational institutions also downgrade the requirements depending on the job description, which in Schär's eyes would be a simple and quick measure for everyone. Such pragmatic solutions are rare, however, according to him - often to the detriment of those who already have to turn over every cent twice. The BWZ Lyss, for example, has found a good solution by establishing three different laptop categories and then defining them for the corresponding occupational profiles. "They understand that you can still work decently with a 7-8 year old device," says Schär.
wLw actively points out to schools that the procurement costs for trainees are higher when more is demanded. "Many are not aware of the implications of such price differences. However, poverty-stricken families will often not know how to help themselves and will probably rarely have the means to purchase new equipment. If, in the worst case, they take out a micro-credit or an instalment payment because their appliance requirements are too high, they already have one foot in the social welfare office. In the specialised shops, they don't advise you, they usually sell you, which then leads to higher prices".
Some schools now also offer rental services, usually in the range of CHF 300-400 per school year. "For the same price, you can also buy a new device that would serve the purpose for the entire training period without any problems; and you even keep the device at the end".
The association would now like to take the relevant professional associations to task so that realistic minimum requirements are drawn up for each occupational profile. "Now it's up to these very bodies, as well as the individual schools. Particularly in digitalisation, pragmatic solutions should always be at the centre, where possible. And you don't have to reinvent anything in these matters: only the will has to be there." Schär had the opportunity to speak at the SSBK (Swiss Conference of Vocational and Professional Education and Training Offices) a year and a half ago on the topic of basic digital provision, but in his opinion too little has changed: "We will continue to fight.
Here's what happens next
Last July and August alone, the association equipped 650 apprentices throughout Switzerland with important basic equipment. This year, the volume is expected to almost double. Schär: "Poverty is not very visible in rich Switzerland. Many of us are also not occupied on a daily basis with questions about how to pay the next rent, buy children's clothes or, for example, a simple laptop. Politically, the poor also have no lobby and are often completely excluded from digital participation. The consequential costs of this are borne by all taxpayers."
The association works with over 700 communities and other partners throughout Switzerland. For a fixed contribution towards costs of currently CHF 150, these partners can obtain laptops from the association, which then covers its own expenses. The laptops are therefore a gift, because the association also receives them free of charge from companies, communities or private individuals. "But we use them to pay for all our other expenses, such as the operation of our infrastructure, staff costs and replacement material.
Wir lernen weiter continues to campaign for precisely these concerns and hopes that these easy-to-solve problems will be rectified in the years to come. This would help those who already do not have much to live for.
Media information: firstname.lastname@example.org / +41 56 521 30 29
Website wLw: https://wir-lernen-weiter.ch/