Understanding the Digital Divide: Implications of Distance Learning

Growing Popularity of Distance Learning 

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools were forced to transition to distance learning using online platforms. As a result, traditional classroom teachers changed their teaching styles to better suit a new virtual learning environment. The rapid growth of distance learning as a means of providing education to elementary, middle, high school, and college students has highlighted the digital divide among the haves and the have nots. 

The Positives of Distance Learning 

Distance education allows for further integration of technology and education. It provides educators the freedom to be more creative when designing their course plan. Technological platforms also allow teachers to use an individualized approach that enables them to monitor each student’s progress. Therefore, teachers can visibly see which students are struggling with the content and may need additional support. In contrast, it is harder to gauge each student’s progress in a traditional classroom setting because some students may be hesitant to speak up and ask for help. 

In addition to the wealth of technology and individualized learning approach that distance learning offers, it also allows students to learn from the comforts of their own home. This is convenient for families who struggle with transporting their students to and from school. Removing the necessity of being in one place at one time creates flexibility and autonomy in the way students plan their schedule. 

The Negatives of Distance Learning: Digital Disparity

The virtual classroom setting enriches student’s learning, but further highlights the socioeconomic differences between families. Not all families have access to computers enabled with webcams and microphones for their young ones to use in school. Some families also struggle with providing their children with reliable internet access needed for distance education. 

Similarly, some students lack a quiet space needed to focus in class. They may live within a large household with limited space. Therefore, distance learning might actually be a stressful experience for students who are not free from constant distractions. In contrast, students from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to have access to devices needed for distance learning such as laptops, tablets, and printers. 

The digital disparity along socioeconomic lines is seen along racial and ethnic lines as well. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, only 67% K-12 of students had reliable access to technological devices during the onset of the pandemic which was even lower for Black (58%) and Latino students (61%). With African American and Latino students more likely to be impacted by the digital divide, they will also be disportionately affected by the learning gaps. 

Fraser, J. (2018, April 6). Digital divide [Illustration]. Medium.

Further Implications: Learning Loss 

Some districts are proactive in getting their students access to distance learning materials. However, other districts especially those in rural parts of the country are not as successful. Therefore, we must think of the long-term effects this can have on students living in rural communities. 

Furthermore, it takes time to adapt to the virtual environment and ensure that students have access to the necessary resources. This means that less time is spent covering educational content which can lead to an increase in learning loss for students. The long term implications of such learning loss may be seen in the years to come. 

Current Actions to Combat the Digital Divide 

At the federal and state level, actions have been taken. A $9.2 billion fund is allocated to the construction of broadband networks in rural areas. In addition, Governor Newsom’s All Action Plan addresses the digital divide. This federal and state coordination is necessary in decreasing the digital divide. While distance learning has allowed schools to continue educating students during the pandemic, it is important to highlight the disparities obscuring students from low-income and rural families from reaching the fullest of their potential.

By Gift N.

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