Panelists discuss ‘digital divide’ as online education becomes a necessity

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 948 views 

The “digital divide” allowing some but not all students access to digital learning involves more than just technology. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for long-term change.

Those were some of the ideas shared during a “Closing the Digital Divide” webinar Thursday (July 9) hosted by the education reform group ForwARd Arkansas. The group is hosting a series of discussions about how education will change during the pandemic and afterwards. It is working in partnership with the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

Panelists noted the challenges educators are facing in a world where students are receiving part or all of their education online. Gary Williams, superintendent of the Crossett School District, said some families in his district live in timber areas where the only way to access the internet is through satellite. Providing devices and bandwidth are challenges that must be overcome.

He said he is concerned about educators’ ability to replicate the classroom regarding accountability and expectations. Sustaining three to five hours of learning in the home is difficult amidst the other routines that occur there. Students’ learning could suffer years into the future.

“Grades may reflect one thing, but what they’ve accomplished may be another, so I’m concerned about what this looks like three to five years from now, 10 years from now, as we move through this period of time if we don’t get our kids back in the building or if we don’t improve our online and in-home engagement,” he said. “That’s going to be challenging and troubling for us.”

Panelists discussed other challenges related to online learning. Hughes Mayor Lincoln Barnett, who is also Delta regional director of the Rural Community Alliance, said parents may be computer illiterate and need training. Don Benton, assistant commissioner of research and technology at the Arkansas Department of Education, said five students and two parents may be trying to share a single mobile hotspot. Dr. Kiffany Pride, director of curriculum and assessment, said teachers need professional development.

Carol Fleming, a speech language pathologist and president of the Arkansas Education Association teachers group, said families may not have unlimited data plans, while students may not have quiet places to work. Therapists are providing services via telehealth and must be sure those services meet Medicaid reimbursement requirements. Mental health issues should be addressed for both students and educators.

Fleming said teachers went home in mid-March believing they would provide temporary alternative methods of instruction and instead became virtual educators overnight. She said they shouldn’t have to pay for the tools they need to do that. She noted the state has federal funding through the CARES Act to provide technology and equipment.

Dianna Varady, a trainer/consultant for the University of Arkansas Partners for Inclusive Communities and the mother of a child with a disability, said the top concern for those families is having content that is flexible and accessible. Providing individual services through distance learning is difficult. She said students with disabilities have better outcomes when they interact with peers without disabilities. Providing those opportunities will be challenging in a virtual learning environment.

Schools will enter this school year offering students an option of full-time online learning or a blended approach, particularly if spikes in infection rates occur. Benton said schools should leverage partnerships in their communities, such as their local telecommunications providers.

“We really need to reach deep into our bag of creativity for this,” Benton said.

While challenges exist, the current situation offers an opportunity for change. Cory Anderson, chief innovation officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and interim director of ForwARd Arkansas, said the current climate has demonstrated the value of teachers and broadband access. He compared the current push to increase broadband access to society’s earlier efforts to provide universal electricity and water. He also compared it to the United States’ efforts to build the military during World War II. Policymakers must be encouraged to provide universal broadband access.

“I think this broadband nut is crackable if folks focus on it,” he said.

Others agreed the pandemic represents not only a challenge but also an opportunity. Fleming noted that the state is undergoing an educational adequacy study that can alter the school funding formula. Benton said education has been confined to a box for many years and shouldn’t be put back inside. Without the pandemic, technology would have remained “that thing over there on the shelf” that was used only some of the time.

“We are now going to have opportunities to learn, to innovate, to create, to do some really amazing things with our students and our teachers and our parents and our communities as a whole,” he said. “We’re going to get to leverage a lot of different opportunities here and a lot of different partnerships, and we’re going to be better because of this. We’re going to be so much better at educating our kids and at teaching and learning than ever before because of this pandemic.”