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COVID-19, the Digital Divide, and the Privilege of Online Learning

Youngmoo Kim
Mar 15 · 5 min read

A few days ago, I was asked to comment on local TV news about the implications of the digital divide as more and more schools (including my institution, Drexel University) announce plans to shift to online learning as we try to cope with the spread of COVID-19. The Governor of Pennsylvania has ordered the closure of all K-12 public and charter schools for the next two weeks, which will profoundly impact the most vulnerable students and families (who rely on public schools not only for education, but also childcare, after school activities, and nutrition). Since there isn’t much room for detail in a brief TV news segment, so I will expand upon my comments here.

The digital divide is real. Millions of students and families do not have a laptop or desktop computer at home and broadband internet, defined by the FCC as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload (which may seem absurdly slow to some). Those without are typically in dense urban as well as remote rural locations, which can be seen for PA, NJ, and DE on this interactive map developed by 6abc. Yet most online tools and services for education are designed for an environment with a fairly modern computer (with a physical keyboard and a reasonably-sized screen) and high speed connection.

What about smartphones? Yes, many more have access to smartphones (more than 90% of US adults under 50), and low income families are more likely to only have smartphone-based internet access. But cellular internet access is a very different kind of service, much slower than landline access and almost always heavily metered by usage. Video streaming and conferencing use a lot of data, which can be costly. (It is nice to see T-Mobile removing data caps for 60 days and other carriers are offering some relief). Regardless, video quality is reduced over cellular connections, making it difficult to see detail, and phones have smaller screens. All of this can add up to a lesser experience for those relying on smartphones for video and access to websites designed for desktops.

Inside a classroom, it would seem absurd if some students could write their assignments with modern ballpoint pens while others were forced to write at their desks with quills and inkwells. But the immediate rush towards online/remote learning is likely to result in a similar disparity. What can educators do to advance some degree of learning and also maintain equity? It begins with understanding exactly what kind of access students have to tech at home and then designing learning for those conditions, just as we do for the in-person classroom.

Practices for online learning that consider the digital divide

I’m guessing that most teachers already know what their students have access to at home, but far less have prior experience with online pedagogy. Here are some items for educators to consider as they’re asked to quickly develop plans to move their instruction online:

  • Even for households with a family computer, it is likely shared by several people, including multiple siblings (and parents). Don’t plan lessons and activities that require long stretches of computer time (long videos, live lectures, and exercises and quizzes that require lengthy computer interaction).
  • While it’s tempting to provide a playlist of awesome learning videos for students to watch and/or host regular online video chats on Google Hangouts, those use a lot of data. Consider the impact on cellular plan data consumption.
  • Learning does not have to be synchronous (where the teacher and students are all online at the same time) to be effective. Students can work on assignments and projects on their own and submit work for teacher feedback later. Or, depending on age, students can coordinate groups online. If you have high school (or even middle school) students, I’m guessing that they are already experts in connecting with their peers online.
  • Similarly, use tech as your students do: to stay connected, share information, and express themselves. Group text chats (if that’s appropriate for your students’ age) are a great, low cost way of staying connected with the class (most cellular plans include unlimited text messaging).
  • Integrate existing social media platforms into learning experiences. Have students create their own media (photos, audio recordings, short videos) and share them with you and one another (as age appropriate). Model how such tools can be used to gain, share, and create knowledge. For inspiration, here’s a heartwarming Twitter thread started by Broadway star Laura Benanti, of students around the world sharing their impromptu performances from school musicals that were cancelled due to COVID-19.
  • Remote activities don’t have to be tech-based, but can be submitted and shared via tech. Students can write or draw assignments on good ol’ analog paper (or design objects using household materials: paper, pens, cardboard, etc.), and take a pic or short video.

These considerations remain relevant regardless whether students attend public, charter, independent, or parochial schools. The same goes for college students: the average college student is probably not who you think and may be heavily constrained, financially. They may be trying to get by with an older smartphone on a prepaid cell plan. If at all possible, ask your students individually about their access to tech at home and, just as you would do in the classroom, adapt accordingly.

There is a tremendous amount of research on online learning, and there are many great resources for teaching online. Here is one recent effort to crowdsource ideas and practices for online instruction, inviting all to contribute and comment (and I encourage you to do so). Perhaps the biggest takeaway: Don’t try replicate the classroom experience using technology; acknowledge that it will be different from in-person learning. I realize that’s an obvious statement, but for those trying to rapidly transition to online (and for the first time), I think it’s paramount to keep that in mind. No one is completely successful at implementing online learning the first time around and any efforts starting now will involve hurdles, many of them, and each instructor will have to adapt to the needs of their students.

But isn’t that what teaching is?

I will also be teaching my Spring Term class at Drexel online (starting in April), and I will write about my experiences in follow-up posts.

Youngmoo Kim

Written by

Director of the ExCITe Center at Drexel University. I write about Expressive & Creative Interaction Technologies, STEAM & Maker Education, + some other stuff.

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