Remote Learning and Digital Equity: Challenges and Opportunities

digital equity
(Image credit: Future)

Tech & Learning talks with Diane Doersch and Kali Alford of Digital Promise about remote learning and digital equity.  

Diane W. Doersch is technical project director at Verizon Innovative Learning Schools and Digital Promise

Kali Alford is associate director of professional learning, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools and Digital Promise.

Digital equity now is an active consideration for educators immersed in remote learning. Thanks to COVID-19, educators should not assume that all students face comparable challenges in terms of being prepared for the school day. The unique challenges and responsibilities that students face at home need to be considered when designing learning activities, assessing mastery, and in the way learning support is made available.

Below is video of the full conversation

What are some of the challenges you’re seeing in regard to remote learning and digital equity? 

Kali Alford: If any school district had prepared for something of this magnitude, they are very far ahead of the game. 

We’re seeing a range with schools in terms of what learning experiences school districts are offering students, what resources they’re equipped with to do that, and what training teachers have had.

Diane Doersch: One thing we can say about our Verizon Innovative Learning Schools is that we’ve been working with our coaches and principals, and they’ve talked about how prepared they feel they have been compared to other schools in the district who aren’t part of the program. And not only in providing the equipment, but also in providing the support for learning through a coach who is based at each one of the schools.

When we take a look at our families who may have financial issues, we ask, ‘Do you have the internet at home?’ and many might say, ‘Yes,’ but in reality, that’s just Mom’s smartphone that everyone uses or shares. Now when there are siblings in the home and everyone has to do work and there’s only one smartphone, and the parent has to use that phone for business because they’re working from home, that just opens up another whole gap we’re seeing in terms of access. 

*More from T&L: Digital Equity and Remote Learning: Best Practices

How can educators help support digital equity during this period of intense remote learning? 

Alford: The first thing teachers can do is acknowledge that it exists, that it’s a thing. 

It’s easy for teachers, when working in digital classrooms, to not really consider the challenges students face at home when it comes to access and technology. But now, with the classroom removed, those challenges students face on a daily basis are very real, whether it’s not having access, having to share devices, or facing other challenges and responsibilities at home, such as being caretakers for younger siblings, a grandparent or a parent.

Teachers really need to consider what kind of challenges are students going to face as a result of this, which can be accomplished by taking it into account when they design learning experiences, even if it’s something as simple as making an assignment to a student and not assuming it’s going to come back the next day. In this kind of environment, it’s probably best to space out assignments to ensure that the students have ample time to really consider what the learning objectives are and complete whatever task is involved to demonstrate mastery. 

Delays can be compounded on a daily basis, times however many classes a student has in their virtual school day. With all those tasks dogpiling by the time they get to the end of the week, let alone the end of the semester, those students are going to find themselves behind the eight ball. And not having those supports means that it’s going to be an even slower process because they really do need those safety nets in place. 

Doersch: Everyone seems to think, ‘Kids have to be sitting in front of their computer for seven hours a day, and they have to be in Zoom conferences!’ and there are so many more alternatives, such as synchronous learning. We’ve seen some of our schools put out a week’s worth of activities through something called choice boards, and allowing kids, according to their interests and their best way of learning, to show their learning mastery in different ways. 

Everything that we do and suggest in the classroom for best practices for being inclusive, you want to carry over to remote learning. And that includes voice and choice for students, allowing flexibility to get that work done, providing materials that reflect the faces of what our world looks like, being sensitive to the needs of students, and understanding that there are going to be things that interrupt learning. 

We’re all teaching and learning under crisis at this point, and we have not established a normal yet, so we have to remember to be sensitive to our teachers. The expectations upon our teachers to teach as well as be parents to their own children who are trying to learn and need care at home can really compound things. And a stressed out teacher is not going to be helpful to their students at all. 

So even teachers who have been teaching remotely have to approach it differently, given the magnitude of the current situation, correct? 

Doersch: It’s unrealistic to think that things are going to take place just like they did at school. And they shouldn’t take place as they did at school. Let’s take the best things we had at school and carry that through, and let’s drop some of that other stuff we don’t need. 

Alford: I don’t want to make light of the situation as it’s severe in a lot of places, but there may be a good opportunity here in education right now. We’ve been very fortunate that the teachers who are part of our program are willing to take risks, learn, and relinquish some autonomy to students in their classrooms, and I would encourage other teachers to take some of these opportunities now to try out some new things. 

In many states, they’ve decided to forgo state testing this year, which is a huge pressure on many of our schools. Now with that off their shoulders, they can take some instructional time to try out some new teaching approaches, and really dig down into some of those interests of students. And also give students some opportunities to self-regulate. 

How great would it be if we could use this time to build into our lessons those soft skills that really can’t be done when we’re in the classroom because we’re restricted by state testing or standards in our states. Now we have opportunities to do that, and if we give the kids the opportunity to build up those skills, when school does reconvene, they’ll be better off. They’ll be better collaborators, better communicators, more able to think critically, and more importantly, be able to consider their own performance, self-assess themselves, and chart a path toward mastery based on their performance and what feedback they get from their teachers and peers. 

What else do we need to consider in regard to digital equity and remote learning? 

Doersch: Don’t let equity be your copout. Meaning, if you feel you can’t provide instruction for this group of kids, don’t call off the whole thing. Push yourself to figure out what kind of modifications can be made for this kid who might have visual impairments, or this child who might not have the technology at home. Because we want to make sure that we’re still reaching all our students. 

The same thing applies if you’re face-to-face: You want to make sure you’re inclusive in your thoughts and in your practices. Don’t let this time stop that creative thinking that was there before. 

Alford: At the other end of that equity spectrum, it’s important for school districts to not fall victim to these one-fell-swoop approaches or solutions. 

Several districts in which I have colleagues have decided to use uniform lessons via third-party content providers, which is great, but many of those resources were designed to be supplemental and not meant to be the main feature of an instructional experience. It’s akin to serving your students side dishes for dinner without having that main course. That is equitable, that is equal, and it makes sure that every student has access to the same learning, but at the same time, you’re not giving students opportunities to build those essential skills they’re going to need going forward in their educational careers. 

Use this as an opportunity to really build out learning experiences that not only hit the mark in terms of meeting standards, but give students opportunities to build out their collaboration skills, to think critically and communicate, to be able to think creatively, and to use different skills to do so.

This is such an opportunity for us to redefine and expand what teaching looks like, and what kind of things can come as a result. I think many school leaders would be remiss if they didn’t take the opportunity to drive that home with their teachers, to ensure and empower that they are able to deliver those learning experiences to their students, and just don’t check boxes in terms of standards.

Doersch: The best app is still the teacher.

*More from T&L: How Parents Can Participate in Digital Learning

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.