The digital divide, though commonly associated with the gap created by a lack of access to digital devices and internet connectivity, actually covers a much broader range of existing disparities. Access to the internet and digital devices is a critical first step, but without the necessary skills to take full advantage of connectivity, students and families cannot easily and effectively engage in digital opportunities – from online lessons from teachers to critical health and employment resources.
Recently, “a Pew Research study found that during the spring lockdown 36 percent of low-income parents reported that their children were unable to complete their schoolwork at home because they did not have access to a computer, compared with just 14 percent of middle-income parents and 4 percent of upper-income parents,” according to reporting in Wired Magazine.
This disparity has led to profound levels of disconnection. In May, the Boston Globe reported that more than 10,000 students enrolled in Boston Public Schools had not logged in to class during the previous month, “suggesting they could be virtual dropouts whose formal education stopped two months ago when schools shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.”
The virtual learning challenge is not limited to communities in Massachusetts. Around the country, school officials, educators, and parents are working hard to tackle urgent, overlapping crises–without a blueprint. Understandably, much of the effort to address the barriers to participation in virtual learning have focused on providing the hardware necessary for students to log on, including laptops and internet hotspots. Access to digital devices and reliable internet connectivity are two critical legs of the stool, but their full value can only be reached with similar focus on the third leg: consistent and comprehensive training.
For too many students and families, providing access to technology without digital skills training is like providing someone a book, but failing to teach them how to read. In early July, a poll in Massachusetts found that families who do not speak English at home were less likely to have their children participate in online learning. Many children from low- and moderate-income families rely on their peers – rather than their parents or caregivers – to help them use and understand technology, a prospect made even more difficult in a moment of profound social isolation.
The critical resources and opportunities available online remain out of reach for many, because even when they have access to digital devices and the internet, they lack the digital skills necessary to leverage technology to support the well-being of the student and the entire household.
With fundamental digital skills, devices, and internet access, families can participate in virtual learning, access employment opportunities, order food and essentials from home, and access telemedicine and mental health resources.
As educators, school officials, and municipalities consider how to sustainably and equitably advance learning as school resumes, robust support for digital training must be a part of the equation. An intense focus on access to technology alone threatens to crowd out support for comprehensive, culturally competent training that meets students and families where they are.
The profound uncertainty and disruption caused by COVID-19 has left students, families, educators, and officials at every level scrambling to react and adapt, but if we are genuinely committed to providing every student the best chance to succeed in a landscape heavily reliant on virtual learning, school officials and municipalities must take a holistic view of digital inclusion.