COVID-19 Shines a Bright Light on Digital Equity Challenges

Civitas Learning Catalytic Conversations Podcast

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been heartbreaking in so many ways, especially in the loss of life and our way of life. Yet amid the heartbreak and fear, we have seen the inspiring spirit, skill, and will of so many, especially our public service and healthcare workers. Moreover, we have seen small and large acts of human kindness from simple support at home to community food-bank volunteering, virtual performances, and social movements.

However, in the midst of all of this heartbreak and humanity, the pandemic has also brought a stark realization to education practitioners and policy makers: the blessing that is our digital infrastructure and professional capacity to use it to help improve, expand, and continue learning even when we can’t be face to face is not evenly distributed. Not even close. While many K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities have invested and expanded their digital learning and support infrastructures over the last two decades to help more students learn well and finish strong, there are staggering gaps in our ability to use it well and our students’ ability to access it.

Part of the problem has been the feeling among some educators that they could wait out, ignore, disparage, or segregate digital learning and support to other people and places within their organization. They had neither the interest nor the inclination to learn more about these tools or techniques. Another challenge has been the hyperbole among some innovators arguing that these digital resources would result in disruption that would make “traditional learning” obsolete, which drove dogmatic diatribes on both sides of the argument. While both extremes in these examples are problematic, they are our problem.

The other side of the challenge—our students’ ability to access these resources—is their problem and has been far more pernicious. For too long American society has viewed digital access as private luxury rather than a public good. As a result, we have let companies profit margins dictate access to commerce, healthcare, and education for millions of rural, urban, and low-income populations. Early work on the “Digital Divide” tackled these issues in the beginning, but either because we were bored or naïve, we assumed the world became more-or-less fully wired. “Everybody has a smart phone,” is the common retort when you bring up this issue.

What the pandemic has brought into clear relief is that for many students the wonders of Zoom, WebX, BlueJeans, Teams, LMS’s, Google Classroom, digital advising and scheduling, and more have allowed motivated and capable teachers and support staff a wide array of strategies to help students access content and supports, connect with fellow learners, explore context, engage in group projects, and even connect with experts around the world in new and creative ways. They eat at a high-speed, digital banquet table that serves high-quality learning and support that students 50 years ago could not even imagine. Other students, however, those far less fortunate, are literally sitting in the parking lots outside their public schools, community colleges, or even McDonald’s logging on to free Wi-Fi, begging for scraps. “Please sir, I want some more PDFs,” our digital orphans can almost be heard asking.

The conversation we need to engage is not about the problems of the Digital Divide, it is about the promise of Digital Equity. How can we ensure that our institutions help our students learn about, with, and beyond today’s technology, and not make educational divides worse in the process? How can we as teachers and support staff challenge ourselves to learn more about these tools and weave them into our work to at best enhance learning and support and at least enable continuity of service when disasters strike—not just pandemics, but hurricanes, earthquakes, school shootings, and more?

But more importantly, how can we be loud and proud voices in championing Digital Equity in conversations about fully connecting our country? How do we help people see this issue as a public good conversation, much like we did with the rural electrification or interstate highway build outs? Indeed, read the book Fiber if you want to be radically discouraged about how far behind the United States is in supporting digital infrastructure and how it holds us back in terms of commerce, healthcare, and education, particularly with low-income, inner-city, and rural populations.

In the podcast that follows, I’m joined by two articulate champions of this cause, Dr. Wynn Rosser, President and CEO of the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, and Dr. Gerardo de los Santos, Civitas Learning Senior Fellow and former President and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College. Throughout the conversation, we unpack the issues and explore the possibilities of taking Digital Equity seriously. Take the time to listen in and hopefully add your voice into the mix of educators willing to argue that Digital Equity matters and that we will have to be willing to change and learn ourselves if we are to address it.

NO, this is not an argument that all learning should move online in the future. However, it is a conversation about how we use our hearts and smarts to confront equity issues about digital technology with digital technology. Please join in!

For those interested in listening on Apple Podcasts, click here.