Online learning is convenient so long as you have stable access to the internet, but how about those who don’t have a home computer or strong internet connection? With New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issuing a stay-at-home order on March 22, Tierra has been at home with her four kids and her grandmother in a crowded apartment in Brownsville, which is largely a low-income neighborhood located in Brooklyn, reported Anna North of Vox, an American news and opinion website.
Transitioning to online learning has been a challenge for Tierra’s family as they don’t own a computer, which means her kids are doing their homework on iPhone. For Tierra, checking her kids’ assignments from the iPhone is harder. She told Vox, “It’s so small, I’ll probably miss something.”
US Students Experience “Homework Gap” During the Outbreak
Brooke Auxier and Monica Anderson of Pew Research, a non-partisan fact tank, analyzed data from the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and found that 58% of all eighth grade students used the internet for homework either almost every day (31%) or every day (26%). Only 6% of students said they never used the internet at home for doing homework.
65% of students attending suburban schools said they used the internet for homework almost every day (35%) or every day (30%). 31% of those attending schools in cities reported using the internet for homework (31% of those who use it almost every day and 27% of those who use it every day).
44% of those who go to schools in towns used it (24% versus 20%) compared with 50% of students attending schools in rural areas (28% versus 22%). When US teens were asked if they have to do their homework on a mobile phone often or sometimes, 35% said yes. 45% of teens in households earning below $30k used phones to do their homework, compared with 35% of those in households earning $30k-$74,999 and 29% of those in households earning over $75k.
17% of US teens were unable to complete their homework due to a lack of a reliable computer or internet connection. Teens from households earning less than $30k (24%) were more likely to say this than those from middle-income (20%) and higher-income families (9%).12% of teens said they use public WiFi to do their homework because they have no internet connection at home.
21% of teens from lower-income families were more likely to say this than middle-income (11%) and higher-income families (7%).12% of US teens reported not having access to a home computer. 25% of teens with an annual household income of less than $30K were more likely to lack access to a home computer than 11% of households earning $30k-$74,999 and 4% of those earning over $75k.
The Emerging Digital Divide
Tierra’s family reminds us that while families are adjusting to online learning, transitioning to e-learning is more challenging for some families than for others. The digital divide is emerging, with many low-income students trying to complete their assignments in cramped spaces or in a single room shared with other family members.
Students from lower-income households also have to deal with the trauma of living in a health crisis without being offered the same protection that more affluent families have such as taking sick leave or having the opportunity to work remotely. Natasha Capers, coordinator of New York City’s Coalition for Educational Justice, informed Vox, “They’re watching their parents leave their home daily to go outside to work in what is described on television as a dangerous situation.”
School districts in the US have utilized some form of distance learning such as online education. Some schools started to utilize video conferences. Jennifer Darling-Aduana, who will be an assistant professor at Georgia State University, noted that video conferences can provide face-to-face interaction with a teacher, limiting parents’ role in directing their children’s lessons.
Darling-Aduana, who studies equity in digital learning, added that parents need to demonstrate enough proficiency in using digital technologies, as well as have the proper conference to set up a video call. Video calls are less effective for younger students who have difficulty sitting through a video conference.
Technology Should be Available for Everyone
Online equality is elusive even in some of the US’s most comfortable suburbs close to technologically advanced urban centers, stated Katie Reilly of Time, an American weekly news magazine. For example, Bothell, Washington, an affluent bedroom community near Seattle, introduced online learning on March 9 for 23,000 students in the Northshore school district.
The transition was seamless for some parents. Grace Jurado borrowed Chromebooks from the school district for her three children. But for others, the transition did not go well. Amy Amirault, for instance, found it impossible to give one-on-one help to her 14-year-old son Daniel, who has autism and behavioral problems. She also struggled helping her three younger children follow their online classes.
Northshore superintendent Michelle Reid ended the online learning venture after five days. In an email, she wrote the inequalities highlighted in areas ranging from access to internet and childcare and special-education services.
Other districts expressed their concern with regard to this issue, saying whether online learning violates civil rights law related to educating children with disabilities. Children with disabilities might struggle with using online tools and they also need more help than their parents can provide. English teacher Stephanie Paz said, “We have to be flexible. We have to remember that our students are human beings in the midst of a global crisis. And the same way that it’s stressing us out, it’s stressing them out.”
Students’ Basic Needs Also Have to Be Met
Darling-Aduana said schools and society as a whole should also ensure that the basic needs of students are met during the pandemic. Capers commented, “We have to rethink what we want to come out of this moment.” Instead of focusing on academics, distance learning should be leveraged to teach empathy and ethics. Schools and society should not act as if it is business as usual. She asked, “How do we use this moment to really instill some core quality things into our system that have been missing?” Capers added that the biggest part is humanity.
We must remember not everyone has access to devices and other technologies that facilitate online learning. Governments should be prepared to bridge the digital divide between students and their families if online learning is to be implemented. If online learning is implemented, school staff should be empathic and check in on their students.