The coronavirus created many challenges for families, and have revealed a digital divide in education. How is that?
In distance learning, the first basic requirement is a device that has access to the internet. According to a study from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group, around 15 to 16 million K-12 public school students in the US live in homes the lack adequate internet connection or the necessary digital devices.
And, although it may seem unimaginable in this digital age, there are millions of families who don’t have a device for their children, and now a nationwide shortage of laptops is making that situation even worse.
“HP, Lenovo, and Dell, have all reported that they’re in a nearly 5 million device deficit. Between the increased need, and the Trump administration’s sanctions on necessary Chinese parts, the demand far outweighs the supply,” notes Tech Talk. This challenge makes it even more difficult for school districts with lower-income families because, for a lot of them, a school-issued computer is their only chance at distance learning.
“Not having a computer is such a detriment that I would almost relate it to not allowing a family to have books, pens and paper,” Tom Baumgarten, superintendent of the Morongo Unified School District in California tells Parentology. All of the student’s in Baumgarten’s district qualify for free lunch and most need a device to successfully participate in distance learning. There is no in-person instruction available at this time.
Internet access can also be a hurdle for many students. Baumgarten’s district is geographically large and rural so many kids don’t have internet access readily available in their homes. They can go to Starbucks, McDonald’s or even a school parking lot to establish connectivity, but many are not able to make the drive.
What Is the Digital Divide?
The challenges brought on by COVID and distance learning are shedding light on a greater issue known as the “digital divide.”
“The idea of the “digital divide” refers to the growing gap between the underprivileged members of society, especially the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the internet; and the wealthy, middle-class, and young Americans living in urban and suburban areas who have access,” notes Stanford University. Distance learning has made the divide much more obvious in communities across the country.
Baumgarten also sees this as a real issue in education, “We’ve got to deal with this digital divide. In some ways it’s economic segregation.”
Many feel that digital literacy is now an integral piece of education. Students need to be educated about how to communicate using devices and systems to ensure that they have opportunities both in higher education and in the workforce. Without access to devices, the equity and opportunity offered in education is compromised.
Baumgarten concurs, “If you really think about it, a device is almost as critical as learning a language in a country.”
Computer manufacturers are doing their best to meet demands, but many orders are expected to be delayed well into the fall. In the meantime, schools are scrambling to repurpose existing devices and distribute them to students, and many are simply forced to wait it out, losing the most valuable commodity of all—time.
“As an educator I’m trying to avoid the COVID crack. If I lose kids that are in the crack of that cavern of the digital divide, it’s going to be very tough to get them to make up their time. Because, the one thing a kid can’t make up is time,” Baumgarten says.