K-12 Schools Face a Distance Learning Crisis

Octavio Hernandez

Distance education is not the new kid in town

Since schools closed due to COVID-19, we’ve come to associate the term distance learning in K-12 with daily Zoom classes and online education platforms like Canvas or Blackboard. However, distance learning is not a new phenomenon. Before the internet, distance learning was facilitated by TV and radio. The rationale then was clear: there were insufficient schools and educators to reach students in every corner of the country, but everyone had access to a radio or TV. School District Superintendents today have had to react quickly to the unprecedented challenge by transforming the physical classroom into a virtual one and ensure all students have equal access to both internet and elearning tools.

The internet created a bigger gap in education accessibility

As education moved away from radio and television towards the internet, two things happened:

  1. The experience became more immersive, interactive and on demand
  2. It stopped being a far reaching, all-inclusive experience as internet connectivity hasn’t achieved the same levels of coverage as its radio & television predecessors.

Alongside coverage issues, there’s an even bigger problem associated with internet connectivity: cost. At its core, access to radio was free or nearly free. Anyone could buy or even make a radio for a few dollars, and enjoy the benefits forever. This phenomenon is not replicable for internet accessibility.

Low-income students are hit the hardest when education goes online

COVID-19 has brought the old issue of financial and resource disparities to the surface. K-12 officials in many states across the US, confront the reality of a failed “blended” educational model where the digital tools that were meant to complement classroom education are not equally available to all students. This is particularly true for those who are from lower income households. The use of distance learning in K-12 schools is failing the most disadvantaged.

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center, showed that 15% of US households with school-age children don’t have a high-speed internet connection at home. This statistic is worse when you look at income level brackets. We see that 35% of households with an annual income of less than $30,000 do not have access to this service. As a result, students from these groups often report that they cannot complete their homework.

The desire to learn doesn’t know boundaries

Researchers at Curriculum Associates (the creators of the i-Ready reading and maths online tool) noticed usage of their software started growing in the weeks after schools closed in March. When they segmented the data into income level brackets, they noticed the largest growth in usage had taken place amongst households with an income median of less than $50,000.

“The data is showing that when students have access to the tools, they’re eager to learn”

Kate Geusic, vice president of strategy at Curriculum Associates.

It is too early to draw conclusions, but researchers reckon it could have something to do with the fact that students in low-income households don’t have any other resources to access during the school closures.

Access to technology is critical for students

We’re not just talking about learning software. We’re talking about access to an educational ecosystem. If we want students to maximize the benefits distance education can provide, we have to give them access to a technology ecosystem that breaks both financial and resource disparities. In a previous blog post, we talked about the UNESCO findings from the Chinese experience of going 100% online in February. Collaboration between government, schools and technology providers is key for success.

In our next post, we will discuss the importance of providing a safe internet experience for K-12 students, so stay tuned.