Education is a crucial human right that has direct impact on enabling the culmination of all other human rights. When there is a threat to the education system in its entirety, there are subsequent devastating effects on society as a whole. The current threat that has resulted in a complete upheaval of the education system, a tremendous decline in the economy, hundreds of millions of jobs lost, and approximately 1 million deaths globally, is the Coronavirus, or COVID-19. While the virus certainly has devastating biological and medical impacts worldwide, the less visible fissures underlying the fabrics of society are deepened. It would be a disservice to say that the pandemic creates disproportionate equity between demographics, specifically, those that are under-resourced and underserved. Rather, these inequities are exacerbated through the widespread social outcomes of the pandemic. Specifically, low-socioeconomic status students who undergo remote learning are at a major academic disadvantage; thus creating unparalleled barriers to educational attainment.
A student’s level of academic success has been proven to be linked to socioeconomic status (SES). When it comes to remote learning, the focal, key component is unrestricted access to the digital space. Low-SES students are far less likely to have access to a home environment conducive to effective learning, high-speed internet, and their own personal devices that they don’t need to share with other family members.
"Low-SES students are far less likely to have access to a home environment conducive to effective learning, high-speed internet, and their own personal devices that they don’t need to share with other family members."
In many low-SES homes, the family members do not necessarily each have a personal device with adequate broadband for video casting. Facilities that traditionally offer public access to digital devices with stable Internet access such as computers and tablets include libraries, some community centers, and youth programs. Many low SES families rely on these services as an alternative to purchasing their own devices and high-speed internet. COVID-19 has placed restrictions on the availability of these facilities through reservation requirements, reduced hours, and reduced number of devices for use. It has simply become non-feasible for students to complete a full day of remote learning using these public services.
The most vulnerable of learners are those who lack access to digital technology, but also those who have poor digital literacy; which is a correlation associated with low- SES students. Studies have shown that access to technology at home is not the only factor relating to academic detriments. Underlying issues in the quality of digital education have anteceded the education system far before the rise of the pandemic. In a 2010 study, Warschaeur and colleagues examined the technological access gap and its effect on educational outcomes. He says, “teachers in low-SES schools tended to be less experienced, and technical support infrastructures were not always as good [as high-SES schools]” (p. 190). Accordingly, the quality of lesson delivery through a fully digital platform often has pre-existing cracks in the foundation of the digital competency of virtual learning classroom instructors. This leads to greater loss of learning for the vulnerable populations, and an aggravation of the existing disparity between demographics.
"This leads to greater loss of learning for the vulnerable populations, and an aggravation of the existing disparity between demographics."
A recent initiative run by Cisco Canada called the “Digital Canopy” program has provided a year of free internet to low-income housing areas in Toronto in the midst of the COVID pandemic. However, the sole provision of stable internet access does not necessarily mean that students have the digital capabilities to effectively engage with online learning activities. Providing digital literacy workshops that allow students who have fewer opportunities to interact with technology would be a great way to increase their competency with educational digital platforms. Additionally, to address the gap in the teachers’ use of technology across the spectrum of low to high-SES schools, it is “necessary to provide teachers with resources that show them how they can make virtual engagement and instruction effective and to train them in remote-learning best practices”. Finally, urging school-board trustees and national policymakers to allocate sufficient funding towards technology distribution programs to students who do not have access to devices could mitigate problems related to the lack of devices that low-SES students may incur.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the inherent flaws of this system that are often not equipped to handle unexpected shocks and sudden changes. Despite the fact that remote learning is not a permanent teaching methodology, its remnants will likely disseminate through the traditional classroom model; inevitably calling for a systemic-level change. For both current and future teachers, this means acknowledging that the current pedagogical framework favours students that come from a place of privilege, and making active changes to alter this trajectory.
"Despite the fact that remote learning is not a permanent teaching methodology, its remnants will likely disseminate through the traditional classroom model; inevitably calling for a systemic-level change."
This includes being sensitive and empathetic to the plethora of students with varying needs, and building meaningful connections with them. This also means using creative means to relay information, and increasing baseline digital competency in the classroom.
Written By: Daphna