Taking On the Urgent Challenge of Digital Access Inequality in Education

digital access

When Covid-19 struck, it brought disruption to every facet of society. And in many ways, technology stepped up to allow us to continue operating smoothly. For those with compatible jobs, remote work suddenly became the norm. Likewise, parents and their children had to adjust to bringing the classroom into the home.

But while companies and their employers managed to transition to the home and back to the office with relatively few hiccups, the long-term effects in education are less certain. It’s not about health and safety fears, but the deeper issue exposed by the pandemic: uneven student access to technology leads to inequality in outcomes.

It seems that technology, in the form of online learning, has only been a good solution for some students and not all.

Calling for institutional changes

2019 figures revealed that over 25% of US households have no reliable internet access. 12% of teachers surveyed stated that most of their students would be unable to use the internet to complete school-related tasks at home.

These trends often overlap with low household incomes and a lack of awareness regarding the importance of internet access, further putting those students at a disadvantage. And while such adverse outcomes might have been easy to ignore before the pandemic, they can’t be neglected as we move forward.

Taking the big-picture view, these are undeniably institutional challenges and must be dealt with at that level. But teachers are operating at the frontlines of this issue. Thus, on an individual level, the educator has a crucial responsibility to call attention to where solutions are needed and which responses might be most effective.

For instance, if an institution will raise funds for disadvantaged students, it has to know what technologies will maximize that investment. A manufacturer like Lenovo offers laptop deals on a business scale, but how many students really qualify for such assistance? What device specs will be required for their schoolwork? Would other forms of tech infrastructure, such as community Wi-Fi hotspots, have a greater impact?

You could gather data through surveys or application forms for assistance, but teachers are the most intimately acquainted with their students. Decision-making at the higher levels will be more effective if informed by the educators in the field.

Educators keeping pace with tech

teacher

Access to computer hardware, software, and internet connectivity is the most obvious problem for the digital divide. But these are only first-order issues. Less evident, but no less important, are the potential second-order effects that might arise when the teachers themselves are barriers to implementation and better learning outcomes.

Disadvantaged students tend to come from low-income communities and are disproportionately enrolled in schools with lower access to funding. This gap also translates to the digital competencies and literacy of instructors at those schools.

If teachers themselves aren’t very proficient with technology, they will be less comfortable implementing it in the classroom and less effective in an online learning environment. So students, even with improved access to technology, will experience limited benefits.

This problem is partly mitigated by demographic changes. Younger teachers entering the workforce will be digital natives. But new technologies will continue to develop over the years, requiring continuous skill improvement. Teachers must embrace self-motivated learning on the tech frontier and receive the support they need from schools in this aspect of their professional development.

Adjusting tech implementation

Integrating technology into education is often seen as an opportunity to ‘flip the classroom.’ This shifts the bulk of low-level cognitive work to the student’s out-of-class hours, allowing them to invoke higher learning functions during class. In theory, it improves the quality of interactions with their peers and teachers.

However, effective learning should always drive the use of technology. How teachers actually implement technology in their classrooms can be a boon, or it could prove a hindrance.

If you view technology as a means of outsourcing your work, perhaps by giving students links to in-depth videos, you might unwittingly reinforce digital access barriers. Only those with capable devices and high-speed internet connections will be able to consistently watch that content. Those who lack broadband access, have low-end devices, or must share a computer with the rest of the family, could end up missing out on the discussion.

Make sure that no student gets left behind. Know the minimum access to tech resources in a classroom, and plan your content delivery accordingly. For example, even if it’s not directly covered by your course material, you can build digital literacy training and etiquette into class activities. This way, the use of technology raises the floor of educational outcomes for everyone.

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