The COVID pandemic has affected many facets of instruction and learning. The changes in instruction were compounded by a lack of universal access to digital devices and the internet (Lieberman, 2020), and the ramp-up time to modify instruction for remote learning. In other words, it’s brought new light to the digital divide in education.
What is the digital divide?
Although the pandemic has shed light on the term “digital divide”, which refers to students who have both computers and internet access at home and those who do not, it is important to note that this divide is not new (Dolan, 2016). In fact, there have been prior efforts to reduce it through government programs over a number of years (Ercikan et al., 2018; Herond, 2016).
However, the urgency created by COVID-19 school closures and schedule changes meant that students needed access to hardware and the internet immediately and many schools distributed computers, tablets, and internet hot-spots in order to help students gain access and be able to attend online classes. Nonetheless, some estimates indicated that 30% of students remain without access to online instruction (Sanford & Irving, 2020).
Consistently, research has indicated that the major contributing reason for the divide is household income level or socioeconomic status (SES; Auxier & Anderson, 2020; Moore et al., 2018). Research also suggested that rural households have fewer devices and are less likely to have internet access (Moore et al., 2018).
Hardware and hard skills both matter
Although having the right device and internet access is essential for online learning, other educators have noted that students must also have the skills to use such tools effectively (Huffman, 2018). Some findings suggest that students’ technology skills might vary across households. For example, Osborne and Morgan (2016) reported that students in high SES households were more likely to use computers for both schoolwork and leisure while students in low SES households reported using them primarily for leisure purposes (e.g., games, texting).
Differences in how technology is used in schools also appears to vary in relation to SES. In a comprehensive review of how teachers utilize technology for instruction Dolan (2016) found that classroom use of technology was not consistent across buildings and that teachers in schools with students from high SES households trusted computers more and allowed their students to use digital tools more often. The implication is that those students who are less likely to have computers or tablets at home might also not have as much prior experience using these devices at school.
These findings suggest that schools must provide not only the hardware and internet access, but also instruction and support for digital devices so they can be used effectively for learning. Interestingly, only one recent study mentioned the importance of technical support for students and teachers when devices are not working at home (Pryor et al., 2020) and the teachers in this study pointed out that timely support is essential for online instruction.
What can be done about the digital divide?
Although COVID-19 has made it clear that a significant digital divide remains for many students, there is no one clear solution to closing the divide. A combination of instructional methods, from low to high-tech, are likely necessary to support all students’ distance learning needs.
In light of the urgent need for technology access during ongoing COVID-19 disruptions, some educators have recommended “low-tech” remote education options. For example, teachers can call or text students who lack internet access to ensure that all students have some connection to school and instruction (Correia, 2020). Several studies have noted that students are more likely to have cell phone access and that using applications that allow group messages is one way to communicate with all students (Dolan, 2016).
Other options include sending print materials home using the mail, having school busses deliver materials to students, and assigning audio content such as podcasts instead of videos in order to reduce bandwidth needs (Correia, 2020).
Providing engaging instruction during remote learning is a challenge even without a significant digital barrier. It is all the more so when students lack technology and internet access. Finding ways to connect with students is likely going to be an ongoing effort well past COVID -19 school disruptions because computers will remain a part of schools into the future. And some students (or their parents) might opt to continue distance learning after the pandemic ends.
Lieberman, M. (2020, April 17). Taking attendance during coronavirus closures: Is it even worth it?
Dolan, J. E. (2015;2016;). Splicing the divide: A review of research on the evolving digital divide among K–12 students. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 48(1), 16-37. doi:10.1080/15391523.2015.1103147
Ercikan, K., Asil, M., & Grover, R. (2018). Digital divide: A critical context for digitally based assessments. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 26, 51. doi:10.14507/epaa.26.3817
Sanford, S. & Irving, L. (2020, July). We need to address the digital divide causing an educational crisis. CNN Wire. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/31/opinions/digital-divide-kids-education-wellness/index.ht
Moore, R., Vitale, D., & Stawinoga, N. (2018, August). The digital divide and educational equity: A look at students with very limited access to electronic devices at home.
Osborne, J. H., & Morgan, H. (2016). Alleviating the digital divide in the United States. Childhood Education, 92:3, 254-256.
Correia, A. (2020). Healing the digital divide during the COVID-19 pandemic. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 21(1), 13-22.
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