The Digital Divide in Education
By Cara O'Malley |
I fully believe that online learning has the power to democratize education and change the world.
We’ve never had a time like this before. One where humankind’s collective knowledge is a click away and ever-growing. One where sifting through information is as easy as a Google search and the hurdles of language and geography are stripped away. Even better, so much of this shared knowledge doesn’t hide behind internet paywalls or selective membership—think Wikipedia, YouTube, and Khan Academy, to name just a few of the platforms where learning’s only barrier is a device and stable internet connection. It’s revolutionary, and yet, we continue to see a widening educational gap, both in the United States and internationally. So why?
Many factors go into a student’s ability to succeed in school, from the amount of food they regularly find in their stomachs to the level of guidance and attention they’re able to receive from guardians. We can’t simply point at a single issue and say, “Yes, that’s it! Solve this, and we’ve fixed the problem! No more achievement gap ever again!” But one problem that we can point to, that I believe is possible to solve and has become even more relevant in the time of COVID-19, is that of the digital divide. Defined as “the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not,” the digital divide determines whether a student has access to all of the incredible resources the EdTech industry has pioneered. When so much of our world has moved online, not having a device or internet access exists in a vacuum where help is sparse and resources scant. It means having to work that much harder to understand difficult material and wait longer for websites to load. Especially in times when a pandemic has forced us to embrace distance learning, it can often mean being barred from school altogether.
In 2018, the ACT Research & Center for Equity in Learning published a report that detailed the impact and demographics of the digital divide. Underserved communities were disproportionately affected, and these communities include those who are low-income (parental income under $36k per year), first-generation in college (highest parental education level is high school diploma or less), and racial/ethnic minorities (specifically African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic/Latino, or Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander). Thus, the already inherent inequalities of society that exist for those underserved communities only become exacerbated by the effects of the digital divide. Cycles of poverty and lack of opportunity appear and amplify. And other groups that tend to lack device and internet access, such as rural communities, are negatively impacted, only adding to rural poverty trends and decline.
So how do we solve this problem? I believe, as do many others fighting for educational accessibility, that we need an internet-for-all approach. The goal should be for every American to have access to a high-quality internet connection at the very least (and ideally, the rest of the world would be connected too). Where once the internet was perceived as a luxury or nicety, it now needs to be seen as an essential, similar to the way we view electricity, water, and sewage. This becomes especially true as federally funded public schools move to distance learning. How can a public school properly fulfill its responsibility to students if many of them have no means to access the internet?
I’m not here to say how we get to the internet-for-all future that we so desperately need (for ideas on approaches that the United States could take to achieve such a goal, check out the Brookings Institution’s article on ‘5 steps to get the internet to all Americans’). But what I want is to urge those of us who care deeply about EdTech to think about what barriers to entry currently exist within the education ecosystem. How might we be able to help remedy such issues? Earlier, I mentioned that online education has the power to change the world, but in reality, it’s already changed the world. But our work isn’t done. We must continue our push toward progress. And in order to continue democratizing education, we must equip learners with the digital tools needed to connect online.
Prior Project Manager at Construct