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Remote Learning and the Digital Divide

Considering issues of equity when moving instruction online.
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The pandemic set off a race for schools to launch remote learning efforts to keep children from falling behind. This shift into the great unknown raised many questions about how to reach all students equally, knowing that many students do not have access to the tools required to learn online. In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Lecturer Uche Amaechi, Ed.D.'16, illuminates the tension that arises for schools trying to find a balance in continuing education in equitable ways for all students.

“We can't just move what we did, traditional bricks and mortar schools, online. We have to think about what are the unique needs that we have of each family. What are the unique needs that are time dependent in these uncertain times? And what are unique affordances of being able to do our work online?” he says.

Amaechi offers some things for schools to consider before launching robust remote learning efforts.

  • Know and understand the unique situations facing ALL your students and families. Every student is in a different place. You can consult the data on your community or a community similar to get started but it’s equally important to understand the circumstances impacting all students and families across socioeconomic groups and even variations within similar socioeconomic groups within your school. “The better you know your population, the better that you know the needs and the variations in the needs of your population, the better you can serve them,” Amaechi says.
  • Personalize learning when possible. As you strive for synchronistic learning opportunities for your classes, aim to be as responsive to the personalized needs of students as possible, even though often times what worked inside the physical classroom may not be as transferable in the online world. Figure out how to respond to what an individual student needs – can they participate online? Do they have access? Is there a parent able to support them? Are there other ways to provide additional support?
  • Step into your students' world. While schools can’t control the learning environments right now, Amaechi advises to see the bright side and leverage this window into the students' world. As you attempt to integrate lessons at home for children, recognize there might be more opportunities to build connections to families and integrate learning at home. Use the learning environment that surrounds the child.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson, this is the Harvard EdCast. The digital divide between the students who have internet access and the millions of students who don't is a real challenge facing schools during the pandemic. Harvard lecturer Uche Amaechi says the divide is creating a tension for educators eager to keep children from falling behind without exacerbating the disparities among them. The divide isn't new in education, but I wondered how this push to get online learning up might play out for those students without access.

Uche Amaechi

 Now that a lot of students are having to do their work at home, and teachers and schools are trying to have the schools do the work at home, they're realizing that just having access to your mobile phone, which is what a lot of kids are going to have access to, because even if there is a computer at home, it might be used by the parents who may need it to do work. Lower income families are less likely to have more than one or two laptops.

So, having the phones themselves actually isn't necessarily good enough for kids to be able to get the work done. So, a lot of schools are having to provide the laptops or Chromebooks or tablets or what have you and send them home. So, there's the digital divide where some families have a bunch of laptops they can give to their kids if the schools can't provide it, that's fine, but other families do not have the laptops. Even though if you're just looking at mobile phone ownership, you wouldn't see that huge a disparity. But now we're looking at actually laptop ownership, and that actually shows more of a disparity.

And then that is overlaid on top of how much internet access or whether you do have internet access. And some schools and districts are thinking about this extra step of, well, are we going to be able to provide wifi hotspots or can we work with the municipal government to have city wifi cover a lot of the areas in which a lot of these families may live in. So, they're thinking about that. And if that's not possible, then there's going to be too much of an inequitable divide. A lot of schools are actually sending home packets of work and trying to figure out how they can keep that going, because the idea is to not exacerbate the achievement gaps that might be influenced or pushed by this digital divide.

So, schools are taking many different approaches to try to, first of all, acknowledge what's going on, and second, to try to deal with it. And again, all of this that I mentioned is looking at this from a statistical aggregate perspective. This isn't getting to the level of actually understanding what are the unique situations and exigencies impacting the different families that you have at a school, which may cross socioeconomic barriers or maybe even variations within socioeconomic groups.

Jill Anderson: Are there things schools can do that will take into consideration these special needs of certain students?

Uche Amaechi: So, first, I think it's important to underscore that tension that you just highlighted, this tension between, well, let's start working and get as much as we can out to the kids as possible, not thinking about the differential levels of use or access, because we need to get something done and we want to start with the kids who can. And that tension between that approach and the approach like, no, let's slow down until we can figure out a more deliberate, intentional and equitable approach, which means that more of the kids may actually not have as much or in a lot of districts they're being held harmless for the work and the work is actually supposed to be enrichment as opposed to actual value added learning, at least officially.

So, this tension is real. This tension is being discussed at the state levels, local levels, and in individual schools. And I've listened in on a bunch of conversations where schools are having conversations with parents trying to suss out how the parents are doing, how their kids are doing, what they may need and so on and so forth, and this tension comes up.

And sometimes it's not even across socioeconomic lines. Should we wait for everybody, so wait for a solution that can address most kids, or should we just go ahead and get started and acknowledge the fact that some kids will be left out initially? So, this is a real tension. I have suggestions and I have thoughts, but I don't have a clear position. And I just want to acknowledge that I see it as a really difficult problem.

So, that being said, this is also a situation that leverages the relationships and the systems and structures the schools or districts had set in place before this crisis. So, the better you know your population, the better that you know the needs and the variations in the needs of your population, the better you can serve them. And schools that have actually done that work, whether it's because they have the capacity, they have the scale, that was a disposition piece. Schools that have done that, I think, have already even before this crisis situation where most things are moving online figured out a way to really personalize the learning.

And the personalized learning can be focused on what happens within the school, so to the individual needs of the kids, whether it be the academic, the social needs and so on and so forth. And while a lot of the responses, these personalized responses, won't be directly transferable to this online world, first of all, the disposition of being aware that you have to try to be as responsive to individual needs as possible, tier two and tier three interactions and the skills that come with that disposition are still going to be very useful as people try to adapt to this new online context.

So, first, what schools are trying to do, they're trying to hold harmless. So, a lot of the work that they're sending home is supposed to help kids not fall back and forget what they've learned already during the school year. So, that is more general work and more general review of concepts that might be a little bit more applicable to more kids and to a broader base. And then as they're doing that, I see schools that have the capacity to have like counselors or people who are serving kids with IEPs or kids with special emotional or learning needs, they're developing their own plans about how to specifically respond to the kids.

So, whether some of the work that was initially being sent out might've been asynchronous work that's posted on Google classrooms, on the school's website, through emails. Now they're thinking about, okay, how can we respond to the individual needs of the kids? Maybe the kids need to be motivated by seeing their teachers, so how can we create synchronous classrooms to actually engage in some of the kids that may need this additional work? But at the same time, that then, of course, intersects with are all the kids going to actually have the capacity to participate in synchronous classrooms, that whole wifi and technology access? Even if they do, would they have their parents there to be able to support them in these synchronous classrooms?

I spoke to a parent recently who was trying to support her six-year-old around a synchronous classroom experiment at her child's school. And it was super difficult because there's a lot that goes into it when the parents have different amounts of knowledge and expertise and supporting their kids with this, and everybody's learning at the same time. So, by synchronous classroom versus asynchronous, where the kids are actually online together maybe using Google classrooms or I think it's now called a Google Meet, where they're actually participating in real time, as opposed to asynchronous, which the teachers were doing earlier, which is they would post assignments and activities either on their website or Google Classroom ,and the kids and families could do it whenever.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Uche Amaechi: So, the tension was you want to do synchronous classrooms because it gives you more kind of surface area, more room to respond to the individual needs, yet you want to be aware that some kids may not be able to participate either because of technology or because the parents don't have the time or the ability to support them in those synchronous classrooms. So, they're then also recording these synchronous interactions so the kids who couldn't participate could later on watch the video, see their teachers interacting with their classmates, and maybe get some of that affective support that may be necessary for their individualized support. So, that's an example of some of the ways that schools are thinking creatively about how to respond to unique needs and while being aware of the intersection of the unique needs.

Jill Anderson: Right. And I know that you had looked a little bit in your research at social media, and I'm wondering what you're seeing out there at some of the schools you're involved with in terms of using social media as a way to stay connected with some kids.

Uche Amaechi: So, I do this proportionate amount of work with younger kids, like elementary and middle schools, so social media is going to look very different in that context. And indeed a lot of that social media is directed at the parents.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Uche Amaechi: Schools are broadcasting out using social media as a broadcasting platform. Some of like, in general, what are we doing? So, either posting on their websites, but also on Twitter and Facebook, what is our overall strategies, what are we really doing in terms of responding to the individual needs of the students while trying to respond to the larger needs of the school population.

A lot of what I've seen with elementary schools is using social media, almost a human social media of point to point interactions with parents. So I've seen schools start having Zoom meetings or other virtual meetings where they share and get feedback from parents and family members about what they're trying to do and what their strategies are, and then having these family members use their personal social media, whether it be Facebook, Twitter and so on and so forth, to connect with other parents who maybe were not at these meetings. So, there was more of a horizontal dissemination from people who were maybe more directly interacting with the school.

As far as for the kids themselves, with the younger kids, I know I've seen some teachers who have started using, again, Google classrooms to not just for this synchronous teaching. They've also sometimes open up spaces where the kids can actually just hang out and see each other, because this is something that's not really happening. And this is a huge part of school for the younger kids. The socialization is a core aspect of what we do in schools. So, a lot of teachers are starting to do that, and then trying to then incorporate that into what's going on into the classroom. So, it's not technically social media, but you can see how they're socializing within the media.

Jill Anderson: I'm wondering how hard schools should be working knowing that a lot of schools and school leaders and educators are probably very anxious about kids falling behind, about missing that academic component, but I'm wondering how much schools need to be doing to keep that community together.

Uche Amaechi: That's a great question. So, it harkens back to what we were talking about earlier in terms of personalizing the learning for the kids. So, now I think in this context, part of that personalization before needed to take into account the family's unique circumstances. Again, we can look at this from a statistical, like on the aggregate, families from certain SES backgrounds may not have access to X technology or Y wifi or something.

But also just getting a sense of the individual needs of each family. That becomes even more important I think at this point because school's supposed to be the great equalizer. And in fact it might not be perfect, but it does do a lot of that in that when the kids were actually coming into the school building, if you think about like three concentric circles, the circle of control, the circle of influence, and then like a circle of concern where you don't necessarily have any influence or even control over. When the kids are in the school, there's a lot that's under in terms of the learning environments that the school can control or strongly influence. When they're at home, where things lay on the map completely changes. What's under the circle of control or influence diminishes significantly, and that's going to be super essential to the kids being able to learn.

So, there's so many different factors and things that families are having to deal with and this is that whole equity piece coming back again. Schools really need to think about what can we actually expect as a learning environment, conducive learning environment, for the kids. And if we were trying to really push as hard as we can with new knowledge or new information and so on and so forth, what can actually be taken in by most of our kids.

If we can't control or strongly influence their learning environments because parents may be at home with their kids with like maybe even additional family members who are not usually in the family because people were trying to stay together during this time or because parents are trying to work and using the computer or so on and so forth, what is this learning environment that we have for the kid?

So, this is, again ,that tension where the schools really need to think about what can we really expect the families to do on average. And yes, you are going to have families who can provide this excellent learning environment, perhaps even better learning environments than some situations compared to the school. But you're going to have others that are not going to be able to or going to be able to inconsistently.

So, taking that into account, I think schools and districts really need to think about what is our approach. We can't just move what we did, traditional bricks and mortar schools, online. We have to think about what are the unique needs that we have of each family, what are the unique needs that are time dependent in these uncertain times, and what are unique affordances of being able to do our work online?

For instance, I know a lot of schools have been trying to do family visits and build connections with families, again, towards the goal of building community, but also getting to better know the families in order to be able to better serve them. Now the kids are at homes so it's going to be easy to do family visits.

There's privacy and there are other questions that come up. But there's this project a fellow educator friend of mine was telling me about how one of the teachers she knows is doing a lot of show and tell where the individual kids are showing either their house or their backyard and telling stories about it and using that to integrate into the lessons, so leveraging the fact that you have this window into the student's world. But this isn't something you can necessarily do as easily in the offline brick and mortar world.

So, really thinking about what is our goal, what is the unique situation that we find ourselves in and how's that different than the situation we were before, and what are some strategies that we can use to leverage the unique benefits to address our goals? And what we ended up coming up with may not look very similar to what we were doing before, because we have different challenges and a lot of different benefits and kind of affordances that we can bring to bear.

Jill Anderson: I'm going to put you on the spot. Earlier you said that there is this real tension with we got to get stuff out right away versus maybe we should hold back and come up with some plan so that we make sure we're reaching all students in some sort of equitable way, and I'm curious where you stand with that.

Uche Amaechi: Thank you for putting me on the spot. I have to walk the walk in some respects. So, let me try to answer your question this way. I feel that if you try to jump in and do what you can, you can do a lot of good, but you can also do a lot of harm. And not just to the people who maybe can't do access, but you may actually with a faulty understanding of either the technology that you're using, a faulty understanding of the capacity of even the people that you think can access what you're providing, you can do a lot of harm, both to the groups that you're actually serving in the groups that end up not being served because you're jumping in before we've really thought about equity.

I am somewhere in the middle. I generally like this approach of let's hold the kids and teachers harmless to adding new learning, but let's do our best to take a more general approach where we're providing kids with review material that helps them not fall back in the beginning. I think this is a good approach because it's more general. You're not trying to add new knowledge and new learning. Because if you're trying to bring in new knowledge and new learning, different kids are going to learn differently, and you're going to have to approach this very differently. And we haven't built that capacity, we being the educational system, because we're trying to transition right now online.

So, as a placeholder, both to give us time to learn how to actually teach in this new environment and teach in the different ways that we need to to be able to serve all our kids, using this more generic let's to have a view approach, I think that's a great way. That approach also then gives us space to also then spend some time I think is super necessary to really understand how are the kids doing, how are the parents doing, what are these learning environments.

So, kind of have to grab data to better understand what is this new learning environment that we're actually going to then have to respond to when we do build this hopefully new and effective teaching pedagogy that can be differentiated in this online world. So, it's buying us time to build, but it's also buying us time to build relationships with the kids and with the families and to better understand. So, that's the approach at a high level that I would recommend. And again, this is very a tentative recommendation because the information is changing every day. I'm in conversations with a bunch of different schools, a lot of my colleagues at Harvard trying to understand their experiences.

Jill Anderson: For those teachers listening and educators listening, any words of wisdom to send them off with as they head into this kind of great unknown?

Uche Amaechi: I guess I would say two things. Look for the silver linings. In this time of uncertainty and unpredictability, there are some things that we can learn that can benefit us going forward. So, to think about how our response and how we change things don't need necessarily to be one-off responses. Think about systemic instructional changes that can, A, affect more students, but B, can perhaps outlive this crisis that we're in and can be effective and useful perhaps in a slightly different structure when we're out of these dark times.

The second piece is, maybe that should've been the first piece, which has maybe been the undercurrent in what I've been saying, is equity is as, if not more, important a consideration in these times because there is this tension. Our primary role is to educate. Although depending on your perspective, education means a lot of different things and takes into social and emotional as well as the educational and cognitive.

And so, we feel like if we're not educating, if we're not teaching what we're usually expecting to teach, then we're not doing our jobs. But you have to remember, just think of the Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We have to start from the bottom. And that's going to look very different for our kids and families, and we're going to really have to take time to understand that, understand that, build a strong base, and then we can really start teaching.

Jill Anderson: Uche Amaechi is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also works with schools on leadership, collaboration, and building systems that support race and equity. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. Please subscribe.

About the Harvard EdCast

In the complex world of education, we keep the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and our communities

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast about the ideas that shape education, from early learning through college and career. We talk to teachers, researchers, policymakers, and leaders of schools and systems in the US and around the world — looking for positive approaches to the challenges and inequties in education. One of the driving questions we explore: How can the transformative power of education reach every learner? Through authentic conversation, we work to lower the barriers of education’s complexities so that everyone can understand.


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

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