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Coronavirus exposes digital disparities between students as learning goes online

With universities across the country closing their campuses, canceling classes, and moving everything online, the coronavirus pandemic has complicated learning for many students and faculty, despite the wide use of technology to keep classes going.

Perhaps the most basic issue is what students will do when they do not have reliable high-speed internet access. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) doesn’t have accurate data on how many millions of Americans lack broadband, but Microsoft estimates it is likely far more than the 25 million people the government agency cited in a 2018 report.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, caused school districts, colleges, and universities to shut down and move all classes online with very little notice. Millions of students and parents suddenly have to deal with the new reality of remote learning.
why the coronavirus could remake school as we know it schools out education module hero v3

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted about the problem as well. She cannot unilaterally make decisions, but at least one government official is voicing concern about a looming problem.

Schools are closing and classes are migrating online.

But not every student has internet at home.

The FCC needs to support a wifi hotspot loan program nationwide and do it TODAY. #homeworkgap #digitaldivide #coronavirus

— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) March 13, 2020

Universities can provide all the educational technology on the market to their students, but without internet or even a mobile data plan that can support access to the tools, it becomes impossible for people to continue to take classes.

Digital Trends has been investigating the responses of universities, especially those that plan to close campus libraries and computer labs. Many schools have not been able to give us details on how they plan to help students without internet access or who face other issues with remote learning.

In most areas where there have been confirmed cases of coronavirus, public libraries and cafes with Wi-Fi are set to remain open to the public. For students in larger cities or suburbs, continuing to attend virtual lectures and do homework will perhaps be a bit inconvenient, but not impossible as long as these places are not overrun.

But this still poses a huge obstacle for students from low-income backgrounds.

The digital divide

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What happens if a student has been sent home to a rural area, or has to stay off-campus somewhere with few public spaces that offer free Wi-Fi? Even lower-income students in cities could face problems since many coffee shops and bookstores require a purchase in order use their Wi-Fi for hours at a time. There are also the barriers disabled students may face in accessing these locations in the first place.

City University of New York (CUNY), the country’s largest public university system, has not issued a plan as yet for students who may not have regular internet access off campus. Classes at some of the system’s colleges have been canceled for at least one week, but matters are further complicated with the New York Public Library system’s announcement that it is closing for the rest of March, essentially eliminating a place for many in the city to get free internet access.

Dr. Cate Denial, professor of American history at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, surveyed her students on this issue, and told Digital Trends her concerns include the “digital divide.”

“It’s our most marginalized students who are going to feel this most intensely, and we have to make sure whatever we do for instruction is equitable,” Denial said.

For Dr. Wendy Christensen, sociology professor at William Patterson University in New Jersey, the plan is, she said, “to take it on a case-by-case basis” if any of the school’s majority commuter students indicate access problems.

“We’re going to have to be flexible about assignments and deadlines,” Christensen told Digital Trends, adding that she and colleagues are encouraging each other to even consider giving students incomplete grades and allowing them to make up the work over the summer semester if the pandemic keeps campus closed well into the spring.

Beyond broadband

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The issues around remote schooling go beyond broadband access. Denial pointed to housing and food insecurity as well.

Universities are safe havens, but remote learning can take those safe spaces away. Kai de Leon de Jesus is a Harvard first-year student who took a leave of absence last October, but still lives near campus and is deeply involved in the school’s LGBT community. De Jesus is a trans, queer woman of color from an immigrant family and suffered housing insecurity herself when the university placed her on involuntary leave. She cannot return to her hometown outside of Rochester, N.Y., because she has, she told Digital Trends, “standing death threats” there.

“I begged Harvard to let me stay [on campus],” she told Digital Trends. “And they said, ‘Well, you can’t stay here, and you can’t go home, but you can go somewhere else!’ And I was like, with whose money?”

She is now watching her friends suffer the same problems. De Jesus told Digital Trends that the mood on Harvard’s campus, which is shutting down, with all students required to vacate by March 15, was one of panic. Even if students had homes they could safely go back to, and the money to get there, she said she has not seen any response from the university to the problem of internet access, and many students were worried about it.

De Jesus said other people in similar situations now have to find a place to live if they can’t go home, or if their home lacks reliable broadband.

“I have a friend who’s not only worried about going home to an abusive family, but she lives in a rural area where her house does not have Wi-Fi, and there’s no library in proximity,” de Jesus said. “I have not heard much of anything from the university in terms of how they want, or believe is the right way, to deal with it.”

Different styles of learning

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Beyond these issues, education technology companies and universities will likely have to grapple with the fact that many students may not learn effectively without in-person classes. Denial said her students “hate message boards. I truly had no idea how much they hated them.”

Beyond students’ concerns, professors are also going to have to adjust their use of ed-tech during the pandemic closures. As Christensen points out, “some of us have taught online and are comfortable doing that. Some faculty members aren’t comfortable teaching online and choose not to teach online.”

She and Denial noted that their academic colleagues are helping each other out through sharing tweet threads and blog posts, having teleconferences with each other to share tips, and attending trainings run by some universities’ IT departments. Still, she said there is sometimes a “steep learning curve” especially with using features in Blackboard beyond just posting grades and or a syllabus.

“People don’t necessarily realize that moving a class online takes an immense amount of work on the part of the professor,” Christensen said. Denial noted too that for professors who run regular lectures or exams for their classes or small group discussions will have a slightly easier time transferring classes to Blackboard, Moodle, Zoom, or the like.

“What I’m struggling with is how to translate a 26-person discussion section to an online format, given that we don’t have an institutional membership to Zoom,” Denial said. Both educators worry about how colleagues who teach lab-based courses and fine arts are going to keep students on pace for the semester.

For Dr. Sarah Gold McBride, an American Studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley, learning preferences are also a real concern. She did her first class online earlier this week using the teleconferencing software Zoom. Prior to the class, she asked students to respond anonymously to a survey to assess how best to go about teaching this way.

“None of my students reported issues accessing a computer, but about 12% were concerned about basic issues of access: Ability to access Wi-Fi, course materials, and a safe and reliable space to work,” she said.

Gold McBride told Digital Trends she “decided to do a combination of live Zoom lecturing and making the video available later in an effort to make the materials accessible even for students who, for example, could not access Wi-Fi at 10 a.m., when our class normally begins.”

However, having the option of attending a “live” lecture, she said, also addressed her students’ second-biggest concern: About 50% where worried that their motivation would falter without the routine of attending class. She said doing both allowed students to maintain some semblance of their normal routine, should they need that.

Gold McBride said the format worked well because her in-person class already used tools like Google Docs and Google Slides, and the university offers students loaner laptops and access to the campus libraries even during the closure. She also had some experience navigating these issues when students were affected by the PG&E power outage in Northern California last year. Those lasted less than a month and put strain on students — the ongoing coronvirus crisis could go on for much longer, leaving some students without the tools they need to learn for an extended period of time.

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Mythili Sampathkumar
Mythili is a freelance journalist based in New York. When not reporting about politics, foreign policy, entertainment, and…
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