Posted Mar 15, 2020
375sharesBy Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
By Vikki Katz and Amy Jordan
Our educational institutions are facing extraordinary choices this week. Stay open, or close to try to slow the community spread of coronavirus? This is no snowstorm dilemma; the decision to close is hard enough, but what’s worse is we simply don’t know when it will be safe to reopen.
It is encouraging that public officials are asking important questions. Whose parents can work from home? Will children be missing school-based meals? Do families have adequate health care? These challenges, of course, particularly afflict low-income families.
But another inequality is frequently overlooked, and it is concentrated among the same families: digital inequality. As schools move their instruction online, the unequal access to a consistent, high-speed internet connection and devices comes into sharp relief. Young people — these so-called “digital natives” — have vastly different degrees of digital access. Although schools have been connected to broadband nationwide through the ConnectEd program put in place during the Obama administration, homes have not.
Students may be “under-connected” in many ways. They have inconsistent internet access, devices that don’t work well, devices they share with too many people, or smartphone-only internet access. In the first national survey of lower-income parents raising school-aged children, we found that the most under-connected students also have parents who are least able to troubleshoot technology problems with them. These parents had lower educational levels (a high school diploma at best), and/or the extra challenge of not being native English speakers.
So, let’s be real in our expectations for what indefinite online learning will mean. The students who will have the hardest time accessing online learning environments will also be least likely to have an adult at home who can help them. In the case of a required quarantine or isolation, these same students will not have access either to functioning technology or knowledgeable digital guides, such as they would find in our public libraries.
And let’s not forget that these issues follow students into universities as well, where recognition of digital inequality is almost nonexistent. As faculty in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, we teach students who reflect the most diverse state in the United States, in every way. One in three is the first in their family to go to college; only four in 10 identify as white. And, like other public universities in the nation, many of our students will face considerable difficulties if they have to complete the semester’s coursework online.
What would it take to mitigate these inequalities?
Students in K-12 schools and universities face three key digital equity challenges: Assistance, Broadband Connectivity, and Devices (ABCD).
These students need meaningful access to Assistance when they have questions or need support to manage online coursework. Time and resources must go toward knowledgeable teachers who can make themselves virtually available to students to troubleshoot tech issues during school closures.
They need Broadband Connectivity, especially if the virtual solution involves livestreaming lectures. This will mean sending students home with mobile hotspots to guarantee they have the high-speed, consistent connections they will need to keep up with their schoolwork.
And, they will need devices. Educational institutions must ask students and parents questions that get at the nuances of digital access. We can’t just ask, “Do you have internet access?”— the real concern is the quality and consistency of that access. We can’t just ask, “Do you have a laptop?” — we need to determine whether the laptop works well and who else might need to use it. Schools must be prepared to loan devices, just as they loan textbooks. Some districts are stepping up. For example, Northshore School District in Washington has committed to ensuring that every student who needs a mobile hot spot and a loaner laptop will have one.
It is remarkable that in the face of a health crisis that requires social distancing, we have the option of turning to technology to balance public health and learning needs. But in doing so, we need to ensure that the technological solutions we deploy don’t foster further disparities in children’s educational progress. Because the last thing we need on top of a health crisis is an educational crisis.
Vikki Katz and Amy Jordan are professors in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University – New Brunswick.
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