Digital Inequity in Education Exposed During COVID-19

The “Digitally Denied”

In 2014, I defined the digitally denied as a marginalized community, that experience digital inequalities regularly, and subjected to additional layers of inequity embedded in the fabric of our society. The digitally denied do not have current technologies available to them, which can include little to no access to the internet, software, hardware, technology training, technology support, and community resources. The digitally denied will not be able to achieve the same level of success as their counterparts who have access to these resources and will be forever left behind in this highly technological and digital world. 

COVID-19 and Low SES Schools

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, has forced educators to work virtually by executing technology-infused teaching strategies and methods while incorporating online tools and platforms necessary to minimize disruption in the learning process. Making this pivot looks vastly different based on the socioeconomic status (SES) of the schools affected, which now includes most, if not all, of the country.

Before COVID-19, high SES schools were educating students using 1:1 programs that equipped students with a digital device, such as an iPad, Chromebook, or laptops providing access to a wealth of technical skills and experiences. Many students in these schools own several digital devices, have internet and broadband access, and quickly adapted to this new virtual world that we were all plunged into unexpectedly. 

Technological Resources

In contrast, low SES schools suffer from the lack of access to technological resources and have a very high ratio of students to computers, which means that prior to COVID-19 many students did not have an opportunity to use computers in school, at all. Some low SES schools that receive donations execute “superficial” 1:1 programs in which students are sometimes given a device for one class period, oftentimes once or twice a week and are not allowed to take these devices home.  This pandemic has instantaneously drawn attention to digital equity and how unprepared and underprepared educators and students are under these new circumstances. A teacher and friend shared, “I am printing hard copies of homework for the school district that I teach in, but picking up a Chromebook for my own child in a different (high SES) school district.” The inequity screams, loudly.

Professional Development

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

High SES schools have consistently invested in professional development opportunities for teachers, provided full-time IT staff, and employed learning designers for instructional support. In these schools, administrators often encourage teachers to work together to continuously introduce new and emerging technologies in their school districts. This high level of access to technology prepares both teachers and students to become creators, innovators, and contributors to society. 

In contrast, many teachers in low SES schools have not had access to professional development opportunities that are designed to equip them with the technical skills necessary to educate students in this digital and virtual world.  Coupled with the lack of troubleshooting skills and scarce IT resources, these educators often avoid the use of technology because they fear they could not tackle common technological issues in classrooms; in this virtual environment, this issue is now magnified. A teacher in a low SES school shared with me that they have “one room of computers, with no time to use incorporate them into the curriculum.”

Recommendations

During this time of COVID-19 and beyond, leaders and teachers should:

  • Have explicit conversations with their students about their access to technological resources to identify the digitally denied.
  • Create a plan that would proactively support the success of these students. Similar to an honors contract that outlines what a student should do to acquire honor status in a particular course, educators should execute “digital equity” contracts or clauses in the syllabus for those students who do not have access to the technological resources necessary for success. This contract or clause would outline additional options or provide extended deadlines.
  • Come together to advocate for the success of all students. 

During this pandemic, digital inequity is crystal clear to administrators, educators, and communities around the world. It’s time to address it once and for all.

Stacy Gee Hollins, PHD

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