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The impact of
distance learning
on education equality

Author: Satta Sarmah Hightower

As research into the impact of COVID-19 continues, there's a growing consensus that the pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities in the financial, labor and health systems. Reports from the Department of Education (ED) and Congressional Research Service (CRS) suggest education equality can be added to that list.

Essentially, distance education can both benefit and hinder equal educational opportunity. Remote learning can have positive outcomes on education equality, and technology can help minimize or remove some of the negatives.

This highlights how distance education can both benefit and detriment equal educational opportunity. Remote learning can have positive outcomes on education equality, and technology can help minimize or remove some of the negatives.

The CRS identified five key concerns teachers, parents and education experts raised about distance learning:

  • Accessing the tools necessary for learning
  • Quality of learning
  • Assessing student achievement and progress
  • Accessing additional services, including targeted services such as special education
  • Safety

Online learning and the digital divide

The CRS describes the digital divide, in the context of education, as "inequity in access to the internet and devices necessary for participation in online learning." This can impact education equality in terms of access for students in rural areas, from low-income families or from communities of color.

An Education Trust survey of school parents found consistently higher rates of concern about reliable internet and sufficient devices among low-income families and families of color. Pew Research found nearly half of low-income students either had to use a cellphone or public Wi-Fi for schoolwork or couldn't complete it at all at least once during the pandemic. A separate Pew report found 24% of rural Americans consider access to high-speed internet in their local community to be a major problem.

The ED report shared this concern about education equality. Its Observation 2 was that COVID-19 had appeared "to have deepened the impact of disparities in access and opportunity facing many students of color in public schools, including technological and other barriers."

While the digital divide still exists, the recent move to distance learning had some positive impacts on access to technology. Many teachers were forced to develop their technology skills, which will ultimately benefit students. The shift to distance learning prompted many schools to digitize the classroom environment and incorporate modern technologies into the learning experience. At a macro level, the pandemic was one of the motivators for the recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes a $65 billion investment in ending the digital divide.

Quality of education and student engagement

The ED report's Observation 1 was that "emerging evidence shows that the pandemic has negatively affected academic growth, widening pre-existing disparities." There have been mixed views on the impact on student engagement in online learning. Yet there are also reasons to believe distance learning can help enhance the quality of education to all students.

There were 575,000 fewer local and state education employees in October 2021 compared to February 2020, despite teacher shortages already being an issue pre-pandemic. This is an issue for education equality as Black and Latino students face disparities in access to experienced teachers. Online classrooms are one possible way to address teacher shortages and provide an equal educational opportunity for all students to access experienced teachers.

Distance learning gives schools the opportunity to expand their course offerings and offer asynchronous, on-demand content, which allows students to learn at their own pace. Schools may not offer certain electives or courses if there isn't enough student interest or there's a lack of resources, especially at the secondary level. For example, 21% of schools in rural areas don't offer Advanced Placement classes. Some school districts have worked with external virtual learning providers to offer supplemental online classes. In a survey of students of online organizations, 76% said they gained access to a course not offered at their school.

Distance learning may also help to build digital literacy skills among students. As more schools embrace a smart classroom model and integrate emerging technologies to support distance learning, students will need to be trained on these tools. Over time, they'll become acclimated to using digital tools, which can give them a knowledge base and foundational skills they can carry with them throughout K-12 and on to college. These tools also can help prepare them for college and beyond by nurturing flexibility, adaptability and analytical thinking skills as they engage with content across different modalities, whether it's visual, spatial or audio-based learning experiences.

Student assessment

The ED report offered no observations on the impact of COVID-19 on student assessment. The move to online learning has involved greater use of classroom management apps and websites. This allows teachers to easily distribute learning materials and transfer interactive content like quizzes and forms. They can also access student attendance, participation and viewing data to see what content resonated with students and if they're keeping up with their classwork. Having this data readily at hand allows teachers to make informed assessments on student performance.

There's also another, often less-discussed benefit of distance learning—it might reduce potential in-classroom bias. Though many teachers are dedicated to ensuring all students reach their full academic potential, studies have shown conscious and unconscious biases are present in the classroom. Some racial and gender groups are more likely to get feedback from teachers and get called on more frequently than other groups. Schools also can leverage different features within distance learning tools to foster education equality and reduce bias, such as removing identifying information in discussion forums to allow students to contribute anonymously and including inclusive, diverse representation in classroom material.

Additional services

In relation to distance learning for special education, Observation 4 of the ED report states, "COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the education and related aids and services needed to support their academic progress and prevent regression."

Online learning through virtual and augmented reality apps can help provide an equal educational opportunity for special education students. Teachers can make individualized teaching plans more accessible to students and create experiential-based learning tailored to each student's particular learning style, enhancing education equality. They can also give students with disabilities, particularly those with autism spectrum disorder, the opportunity to practice real-world skills in a safe environment.

Safety

Observation 6 of the ED report was that "nearly all students have experienced some challenges to their mental health and well-being during the pandemic." While some of these challenges could be linked more to the pandemic itself than distance learning in general, the report noted more specific observations about the safety of girls (Observation 7), LGBTQ+ students (Observation 5), as well as Asian American and Pacific Islander students (Observation 8).

Some parents and students of color have reported feeling more secure in online learning as it helps them avoid racism and microaggressions.

The right technology

Based on the above, it is clear distance learning can present both positive and negative education equality outcomes. Technology can play a role in maximizing those benefits and minimizing the negatives. Important factors to consider regarding technology and equal educational opportunity include:

  • Some students may require additional support with access to broadband and digital devices. Programs like Digital Promise provide free technology and access to help address the digital divide. Teachers and administrators should be conscious of any assessments or technology tools that could require access to devices or internet speeds unreachable to some students.
  • Strong, reliable connectivity is also vital for distance learning. Many schools have relied on mobile hotspot devices to provide internet access to students who lacked reliable connectivity. Schools with hybrid classrooms also have invested in secure connectivity solutions like private networks and internet-dedicated services. They've also invested in standalone security solutions like secure cloud gateways to protect educational apps and data across devices.
  • Video conferencing and collaboration tools, with features such as digital whiteboards, breakout rooms and in-app intelligence to capture the most important discussion points, can assign action items and replay highlights to help reinforce key educational objectives.
  • Modern collaboration tools should be able to provide accessible features such as automatic closed captioning, keyboard accessibility, high-contrast user elements and support for common screen readers.

Other strategies for success

Just as each student learns differently, education equality issues impact each student differently. Here are some general tips on using technology to help provide an equal educational opportunity for all students:

  • Let the data be your guide. Tools like the Learner Variability Navigator can help you better understand and address each student's unique needs.
  • Connect with communities and avoid assumptions about your students' backgrounds.
  • Allow your students to have a voice.

Learn more about digital equity in schools and how Verizon can help educators close the digital divide across America.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.