To create a truly successful distance learning program, you need more than just devices and connectivity.
In the midst of the flurry of news regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, a parallel narrative has quickly taken shape: Schools went all-in on remote learning. Wherever you live in the US, you can probably find stories of local school districts executing rapid deployments of laptops and tablets. It’s all in service of bridging the “digital divide” that exists between students living in households with an established digital infrastructure and those living in rural, low-income and otherwise disadvantaged households with little support.
The sudden spending spree may be a bit confusing to observers who notice how cash-strapped normal school operations are, but districts are leveraging a combination of grant funding from state boards, federal funds provided via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and support from local governments, nonprofits and other partners.
Despite this outpouring of funds to sustain new mobile computing hardware, many parents have quickly discovered that receiving a shiny new device is just the beginning and adapting to distance learning has many other challenges.
The largest obstacle is lack of access to broadband internet. According to the most recent Federal Communication Commission (FCC) guidelines, broadband simply means internet access with a bandwidth of a minimum of 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds. Unfortunately, a recent study estimates that 31% of U.S. households don’t meet these minimum requirements.
While the bulk of those are rural users, this remains an issue even in high-density urban areas. There, students may live in large apartment buildings, shelters or other buildings where individual internet access isn’t easy to acquire. One unfortunate recent example in Phoenix, AZ involved three students who bundled under a blanket outside a nearby school to finish their homework using the school’s internet. Even having internet access that meets that threshold can prove problematic when multiple children are simultaneously doing schoolwork with parents also working from home.
Both school districts and individual households have tried to circumvent this with the purchase of mobile hotspots, but the sheer scale of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a backlog with cellular and broadband internet providers, with some orders taking weeks to fulfill. Schools have pivoted to welcoming families to their parking lots to access free Wi-Fi or equipping otherwise idle buses with hotspots and taking them to families’ neighborhoods. However, these solutions are short-term band-aids that mask a more intrinsic problem of equitable access.
Beyond internet access, parents are also struggling with a new and unexpected role: Help desk support. From trying to set children up on Google Meet video conferences to troubleshooting app glitches, much of the school day is consumed with trying to address technical obstacles for completing schoolwork. Often teachers are tasked with being the primary source for help, adding more stress to their already considerable workload as remote learning educators. Beyond software snafus, parents must also deal with hardware issues like malfunctioning headsets or a non-responsive mouse. Unlike their corporate environments they’re used to operating in, stay-at-home parents trying to manage distance learning have no dedicated support mechanisms to help them troubleshoot daily issues.
Most school districts have pieced together a technical support department with a small staff. To give context, large companies usually have at least one technical support person for every 50 devices. If a school had 400 students and faculty members, they would need a technology staff of eight, which is hardly the norm. The technology support teams they do have in place rarely work directly with school staff. They usually only visit schools when there is a major infrastructure malfunction or new equipment being installed.
With the onset of remote learning, these small teams are barely able to keep up. For school districts that were not ready to support the influx of remote students at the end of the year, they now have the summer months to ramp up their programs for the beginning of the year. But, hiring additional tech support staff is usually at the bottom of a school district’s list of priorities especially if it comes at the expense of hiring teachers.
These issues and others highlight the need for holistic and comprehensive technology education strategies that account not only for procuring the devices, but also the infrastructure and technical support to allow parents to become true partners in their children’s education—even when it means extended remote learning. The reality is that as school technology becomes more complex, we must arm our educators and students with the proper level of technology support to ensure they are successful.