Editor’s Corner--COVID-19 worsens our digital divide

The U.S. had a digital divide before COVID-19. The virus brought it into focus. (GettyImages)

COVID-19 highlights society’s inability to cope, even amid the technology prowess of the U.S.  In the land that invented the microchip, we have neglected the fundamentals.

One particular concern is how internet broadband is not available to many workers and students in some rural and inner-city areas and on Native American lands. If you can’t work or take classes from home because you don't have internet, you are at a distinct disadvantage.

Data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration showed that in 2017, 14% of school-age children did not have internet access. Most were in households that made less than $50,000 a year, with many living in rural areas.

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The ongoing U.S. Census might help us update those numbers. However, Pew Research Center also found in 2018 that nearly 20% of teens can’t always finish their homework because of the digital divide. 

According to recent reports, Northshore School District in Washington paused on its plan to move to emergency online instruction in mid-March, while Philadelphia schools said they could not ensure equal access to technology and would bar remote instruction.   Since that time, Philadelphia schools have closed for the remainder of the school year.

To help in the near-term, Internet service providers and the Federal Communications Commission have stepped up with offerings of increased data caps for mobile hotspots and other relief, as reported by Edsurge and other publications. 

RELATED: How will a mass shift to tele-learning affect wireless networks?

To get a better idea how schools are dealing with gaps in internet coverage during COVID-19 and school closings, FE surveyed 10 schools and colleges but none responded officially.

In the case of public schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, an elaborate learning plan was developed that includes mailing out paper-based course materials along with online learning to replace physical classes.   In effect, Fairfax Schools intended to address all families, including those with limited internet access.  The district is the 10th largest public district in the nation with 198 schools and related buildings, 187,000 students and 12,500 teachers.

The first day after returning after spring break on Monday, April 15, however, online access was disrupted, according to parents.  On Wednesday the Fairfax schools announced that all teacher-led instruction was canceled for the week in order to make software updates to Blackboard, an online learning provider. At least for a week, students without internet access were put on equal footing with their peers.

Software glitches aside, FE has heard anecdotes from teachers, students and parents of their difficulties in suddenly converting to online learning even when the broadband connection is adequate.  In one example, a college student has had to to cope with an instructor who insists on converting an intensive in-person day-long class to one conducted for just as long synchronously over various e-learning platforms such as BlueJeans or Zoom.  Even over a good connection, there are lapses in the transmission and lapses in attention at the fifth and sixth hour of instruction.

Some parents are laughing, so far, about how they have adapted to both spouses working from home while also feeding, teaching and entertaining their young children.  “I Googled, ‘Things you make from toilet paper rolls’ and we made an elephant,” one young mom said, laughing.  One young father said he left his young son to finish online homework and found that his ‘in-class’ math work assigned by the teacher to be finished mid-day wasn’t done until just before bedtime.

 “It’s been chaos!” said another mother who is pregnant and has two elementary school children learning at home as she and her husband also work at home.

A story by Karen Field in FierceElectronics describes how college engineering students are coping with the disruptions to co-op jobs and internships as well.

 RELATED: COVID-19: For engineering students, it’s life, interrupted

Facebook is full of stories of canceled graduations. College administrators are grappling with refunds in some cases, or lawsuits in other cases where students argue they haven’t gotten what they paid for with a switch to online learning.

For professors who don’t control the purse strings, the situation can also be frustrating. Another FE story described how engineering and business lecturers have had to scramble to provide appropriate online content for complex design and software topics.

RELATED: Teaching tech online amid the panic of coronavirus 

For the most part, students and parents seem to be patient about suddenly being thrust into online learning, and some colleges, universities and K-12 schools have performed admirably. We don’t usually hear the success stories, however.

 Nobody is, apparently, bothering to ask if students are actually learning concepts that will stick. In many cases, administrators seem to have given up on that goal and have opted to give students a choice of accepting a grade or opting instead for pass-fail.

Honestly, if we face it as a nation, when we count all the workers and students who don’t have internet access, then add in the plurality of students that find online learning less than effective or even laughable, wouldn’t we deserve a pretty poor grade for our priorities?  Something less than a gentleman’s C, perhaps.

Having said as much, there are still people dying from COVID-19 and doctors and nurses are getting sick themselves from stepping up heroically to help. Sadly, the same people who don’t get internet are often service workers who care for the sick and elderly, sanitize bathrooms,pick up trash, and prep or pick strawberries to help the rest of us stay comfortable at home before multiple computers. 

Things are out of whack, but that started well before the virus struck.

Matt Hamblen is editor of FierceElectronics.

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