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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Online Learning and the Digital Divide: Benefits and Cautions

In 2003, the U.S. Dept. of Education reported that 317,000 students took online courses.  In 2015 that number jumped to 2.7 million students and continues to grow.  Different schools use online learning for different reasons:  some for enrichment, some for variety, and some simply to meet essential skills where teachers are simply not available.  It is this third case that is most relevant to equity and digital divide issues.  In rural Mississippi, students take AP Physics classes from an instructor hundreds of miles away.  In rural Oregon, students learn Spanish from a teacher who appears digitally while a proctor facilitates the classroom.  In suburban and urban areas across the U.S., districts employ online coursework for a variety of reasons, with a big push to use digital coursework to make up academic credit.

For small schools -- particularly those in rural areas with few students and staff -- online learning can mean opportunity.  Subjects that could only be taught at large urban and suburban schools can now be accessed from afar.   This can be a game changer with respect to equity and online learning can provide opportunities that were inconceivable just a few years ago.  Additionally, online learning can offer several advantages:

A.  Convenience -- the resources are available from anywhere and at any time.

B.  Independence -- in some cases, students can set their own hours of learning.

C.  Variety -- districts can expand their course offerings to match student need and interests.

Despite these benefits, there are certainly cautions as well:

A.  Lack of human interaction -- many high school online courses rely on reading and test taking formats with no human interaction.  The lack of consistent teacher feedback can be a barrier to those students who very well might need consistent interactions the most.   Although these types of courses might meet the needs of some students, many students experience perceive them as drudgery.

B. Lack of ownership -- when districts purchase online courses, they give up lack of control and over content and instruction.  Some courses might be a "general" fit, but the static course does not allow for adaptability. 

C.  Lack of connectivity -- when districts rely on online materials and instruction without planning for home connectivity, it is the poorest students who might end up having the least access.  

D.  Lack of Data -- currently, the data doesn't always support the efficacy of online learning, and some providers have been accused creating lackluster courses motivated mainly by profit.

E.  Cost -- in many instances, online work can cost more as a supervising teacher is working with fewer students and the district still has to pay the content provider a fee for their service.

As outlined in a Hechinger Report article, online learning does have potential.  It can provide opportunities for advanced coursework where opportunities never existed, and this is especially true for students in rural areas.  However, districts must exercise due diligence in vetting coursework.  When there is a live teacher involved in the online learning process, the potential for student engagement and deeper learning is much greater.   With respect to the digital divide, districts must also consider connectivity issues for all students.   Otherwise, implementing coursework that requires home study for students who don't have internet access will magnify inequities and set students up for failure.

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