Blog Post

COVID-19 and the "New" Issue of Digital Access for All

No one anticipated the broad spread of COVID-19 as well as the disruption to K-12 education across the globe. In response, many American schools are scrambling to facilitate substantive online learning. I teach at a Title 1 school, and the school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the digital divide. I assumed that in 2020, virtually all families would have access to the Internet with some type of computing device. After an initial survey on our campus, I realized that the digital divide continues to be an issue with students and their families. Shortly thereafter, urban and rural districts were reporting inequities with the deployment of distance learning practices.

medical illustration of COVID-19

 

Our Current State

The facts about the current state of the digital divide are staggering, and the data highlight inequities across racial, poverty, geographical, and socioeconomic categories. In 2019, 21.3 million Americans did not have broadband access in the U.S. and only two-thirds of rural Americans had a broadband connection (Turner-Lee 2020). According to Pew Research, 56% of adults that earned under $30,000 had broadband Internet and only 54% reported owning a laptop or desktop computer (Anderson & Kumar 2019). In contrast, 84% of Americans that earn between $30,000 and $99,999 had broadband access, and almost all that earn over $100,000 per year have broadband Internet.

Schools in large urban and rural remote areas also have a significantly different profile than their suburban counterparts. Statewide closures forced Philadelphia to consider distance learning over the Internet and the city administration quickly realized that approximately half of their students did not have access to technology. Furthermore, a significant amount of students also did not have Internet access (Board 2020). Schools are now in the position of lending devices to families and finding ways of deploying cellular hotspots as a result of closures and the “new” urgency of digital access for all.

Now that the persistent issue of access has been clearly exposed by COVID-19-prompted school closures, the entirety of the educational landscape must take action to shore the technology gap that negatively impacts the learning of students. At this juncture, most teachers and administrators are trying to avoid the disaster of a massive “summer slide,” with attempts to keep students academically engaged.

Tools that Can Help

Consistent Learning Management System (LMS) usage as a normal practice is one strategy to effectively prepare students for blended learning or the flipped classroom model, which is a close cousin to distance learning. Seesaw is an excellent LMS that is geared toward early education professionals. This platform embeds functionality to take pictures, record videos, and draw as students work to develop a collective portfolio. Google Classroom is the preeminent LMS platform in K-12 education that integrates most of the applications within the G-Suite for education with cloud computing. Edmodo is an LMS that is formatted in the guise of contemporary social media platforms and is best used in 6-12 environments. The Blackboard LMS is popular in the secondary and post-secondary environments with a customizable and scalable interface robust in data collection and analytics. Also, each one of the aforementioned platforms has a free supplemental mobile application for teachers, students and parents.

Two African-American girls sitting on couch using their laptops

 

How We Can Address the Equity Issue

Schools must start promoting low-cost device purchasing and low-income Internet access at the beginning of each year as well as conducting periodic check-ins with families that are without devices or broadband. For many families, a low-cost Chromebook often meets this need. According to the Federal Communications Commission, families that “either have an income that is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participate in certain federal assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Medicaid” qualify for the Lifeline wireline assistance program (“Lifeline Support for Affordable Communications” 2020). Also, almost all cable companies and Internet providers offer some type of low-income program for students that qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Computer science and technology teachers can get involved by identifying and writing several school and classroom grants to help mitigate the divide. Moreover, computer science teachers should lead the way by ensuring that all students have adequate access to technology and access to the Internet at home. We must work with administrators to craft technology needs assessments for both parents AND students to appropriately address the technology gaps among our families.

Going forward, all academic stakeholders must assume responsibility for ensuring students have access to the digital tools that they will need throughout their academic endeavors. Schools, administrators, and teachers need to structure education to scaffold fluency using digital platforms to vertically align with the expected usage at the industry level. It is sad that it took a global health event to expose something that education professionals should have remedied years ago.

What has been your experience with distance learning equity? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

Anderson, Monica, and Madhumitha Kumar. “Digital Divide Persists Even as Lower-Income Americans Make Gains in Tech Adoption.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 7 May 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/07/digital-divide-persists-even-as-lower-income-americans-make-gains-in-tech-adoption/.

Board, The Inquirer Editorial. “The Coronavirus Crisis Is an Education Crisis: Editorial.” Https://Www.inquirer.com, Staff, 25 Mar. 2020, www.inquirer.com/health/coronavirus/hite-chromebooks-education-philadelphia-school-district-distance-learning-coronavirus-editorial-20200325.html.

“Lifeline Support for Affordable Communications.” Federal Communications Commission, 20 Mar. 2020, www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/lifeline-support-affordable-communications.

Turner-Lee, Nicol. “What the Coronavirus Reveals about the Digital Divide between Schools and Communities.” Brookings, Brookings, 18 Mar. 2020, www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2020/03/17/what-the-coronavirus-reveals-about-the-digital-divide-between-schools-and-communities/.

 
Leon Tynes teaches technology to K-8 students at the Academy of Math and Sciences-Desert Sky charter school in Phoenix, Arizona. Previously, he taught AP Computer Science Principles, App Development, 3D Modeling (Unity/C#) and Digital Media in the New Haven Public Schools District, Connecticut. Leon has worked closely with the College Board to provide diversity perspectives in CS education and participated in their annual Facebook APCSP Teacher Summit. He is also a Mobile CSP Master Teacher and was an APCSP reader for the past three years.

 

Comments

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Submitted by Sheri Schoonmaker on Fri, 04/24/2020 - 14:31

Moodle and Canvas are both popular LMS systems in use in most colleges.  College-prep high schools often choose to implement the LMS that is in place at the universities where most of their students will attend.  That way, their students already have the experience dealing with an LMS rather than the "old-fashioned" way of passing papers to the front of the classroom.  These tools should be included in the "Tools That Can Help" section above.  

These tools are also not part of the digital divide.  They are both open-source, meaning FREE, easily set up, and easily accessible by most cell phones and tablets, although they do work better on a laptop or desktop, even Chromebooks and older model machines.  Blackboard, however, does cost money, which makes me wonder why it was highlighted instead of the more popular Moodle and Canvas.

The articles referenced talk about broadband access, but since many people without broadband at home access the Internet through their smartphones and hotspots created by their smartphones, it should also include statistics about the number of people without broadband, but DO have smartphone access.  In an urban setting, Internet access is often easily gained by walking a block or two down the street.  That availability should be included as well.  In rural settings however, neither cell phone service nor fast Internet speed is available, and often requires one to drive over an hour to get that access.  When you are talking about digital equity, all of these things should be included.  Otherwise, we are not getting a complete picture of what is truly going on.