Teachers and caregivers across America are scrambling to find ways to engage kids in learning while schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It seems as if every school, district, and state is struggling in its own way to meet this immediate demand. Parents and students — and teachers, too — are having to learn new online education platforms, assuming they have computers and the Internet. Access to opportunities is uneven, emphasizing historic gaps and exposing new ones.
In Massachusetts, recent reports show persistent achievement disparities among underserved student groups. For students who are already behind, school closures may set them back similar to summer learning loss, when students without the necessary resources outside of school to maintain skill sets start a new academic year already behind. New inequities are now emerging. While educators and parents have been deluged with digital learning resources from a variety of providers, these resources vary in cost and in educational quality. Also, many parents do not have the financial resources, capacity, or skill to take on the role of homeschooling, while professional educators are learning how to conduct computer-based “distance learning” for the first time. In some homes, cell phones are the only digital device. In others, an entire family may share the use of one computer. And despite heroic efforts by many school districts to send laptops home, not every household has broadband access.
But for all the heartache and uncertainty this pandemic is creating, it has catalyzed an unprecedented response from so many communities wanting to bridge those gaps.
There are ways to level the playing field for remote education and better prepare everyone, especially students, for a digital learning environment that may extend beyond moments of crisis:
▪ Districts need distance-learning infrastructure, standards, and training. Federal and state funding is needed to help districts build that infrastructure. The go-to mode right now for distance learning is posting a list of links to resources aligned with state curriculums. But districts need a standardized platform through which teachers can curate and assign those resources and facilitate learning and discussion. While some districts have already adopted a platform, many teachers use the platforms as resource and homework hubs and are not yet familiar with how to leverage these sites for active teaching and learning.
Yet one of the challenges of distance learning is that it’s not required training for new teachers. A significant number of teachers lack adequate training in valuable online applications such as PBS LearningMedia, Zoom, FlipGrid, Screencastify, or Seesaw that facilitate effective remote instruction. Districts and educators will also need to learn about digital citizenship, privacy issues, and accessibility issues for those with disabilities.
▪ Now more than ever, we need to expand access to broadband. Many students, especially in rural communities, do not have reliable access to Wi-Fi in their homes. Some rely only on their parents’ mobile phones to get access to their lessons. Addressing rural and low-income broadband access challenges are key to bridging gaps in learning. Right now, Comcast and Verizon are providing free or more affordable high-speed Internet for low-income families. Charter is offering free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi to families of students who don’t already have the service. But long-term, all Internet and mobile providers need to help close the digital divide.
▪ Lastly, we should not overlook free broadcast over-the-air television as a means to help educate students who currently do not have access to the Internet. WGBH and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have partnered to launch a daily five-hour educational programming block on broadcast television on WGBH’s WORLD channel. As of March 30, PBS stations nationwide are also broadcasting the program schedule and sharing the digital learning resources, from PBS LearningMedia, a free, national online service offering classroom-ready digital resources for educators in all 50 states.
Taking these critical steps will benefit all students — not just those who are struggling. And they will matter long after the current crisis. They will lay the groundwork for the reality of a more digital educational future and help prepare our schools and children for whatever comes next. Let’s not waste this opportunity.
Jonathan C. Abbott is the president and CEO of WGBH.