March 16, 2020
As of Monday, 35 states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, have shut down all schools to prevent further spread of coronavirus. With millions of students cut off from in-person classes, schools are turning their attention to digital learning. But shifting everything online isn’t easy—and if schools aren’t careful, they might wind up leaving vulnerable students behind.
First, there’s the issue of home connectivity. While certain public spaces have wifi connectivity, that won’t necessarily remain an option for long. As libraries, restaurants, and other public amenities across the country are forced to close, students face the prospect of losing complete access and, once again, having no connectivity outside of school.
According to a November 2017 survey, 14 percent of the U.S. population between the ages of six and 17 don’t have internet access at home—nearly 7 million in total. When these data are separated by family income and race, the disparity between those connected and those unconnected are even starker: 60 percent of unconnected families have an annual income of less than $50,000, and while most White and Asian American students are connected (88 percent), only 81 percent of African American and 83 percent of Hispanic students are connected.
Beyond devices, it’s important to assess the effectiveness of software, web-based tools, and apps that enable and support digital learning—such as Learning Management Systems, video conferencing, and other communication tools. While some companies are now offering free licensing to accommodate schools making this rapid transition, schools should be wary of jumping on board with new tools that a) teachers and students have never used and b) may not have protections in place for safekeeping student data. These shiny new tools may look great, but now is the time to strive for some level of consistency in learning—not to implement untested technologies.
Even if we could ensure that all students have home access to high speed internet through a reliable device, there’s more to online learning than simply migrating lessons to Google Docs. Pedagogical shifts must happen. As shared in research completed by Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, the effectiveness of digital learning requires an approach that builds high levels of engagement, focuses on higher-order skills, and blends digital and teacher-based learning. To accomplish this, teachers must think beyond the direct instruction that typically happens in a classroom, posing bigger questions that allow students to explore a topic in various ways—while providing the support students need to demonstrate their learning. However, according to a PwC study, 60 percent of current classroom technology use is passive (e.g., watching videos, reading websites), and only 10 percent of K–12 teachers feel confident incorporating higher-level technology into student learning.
Student support also needs to go beyond technological considerations. Right now, 20.2 million students receive free meals each day through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and an additional 1.8 million receive meals at a reduced rate. These students face food insecurity and hunger issues at home—making it difficult, if not impossible, for learning to take place. Furthermore, 1.5 million students were homeless in the 2017-2018 school year, meaning that, even with a take-home device and a packed lunch, they lack a stable environment in which to learn.
So how can we create multi-tiered systems of support for students whose parents must leave them unsupervised during the digital school day—or who don’t have the content knowledge, language, or technology skills to support their child’s academic learning at home?
One possibility is allowing students to explore creative, self-guided pursuits in the arts and sciences, rather than forcing the home school experience to accommodate new learning. For example, teachers could pose science-related questions for students to explore through online research, books, experimentation, and more. Another option is reviewing concepts already learned, ensuring that students don’t fall further behind—and giving some students time to catch up with their peers. In light of coronavirus shutdowns, educators have shared a wealth of resources to support distance learning. Passing these websites and tasks along to students can help reinforce learned concepts.
Not all students have access to reliable, connected technology at home; not all educators are equipped to teach within a digital environment; and not all students have a supportive home environment in which to learn. While schools making the critical decision to shut down are playing an essential role in the fight against coronavirus, they need to make equally careful, conscientious choices about implementing home learning—and work closely with educators, parents, and students to ensure a smooth, equitable transition.