I have come across a number of articles (see for instance Brown and Salmi, 2020), and received several e-mails, pointing out that a sudden move to online learning disadvantages certain types of students, in particular:
- racial and ethnic minorities
- students in remote areas, or in developing countries, with poor or no internet access
- poor families who cannot afford broadband access, wifi or computers
- children at home who cannot be supervised/supported by their parents (perhaps because both are essential workers, for instance)
- students with disabilities.
I have also been asked to recommend some strategies for reducing the inequalities resulting from going online.
Inequities in education existed before emergency online learning
These are serious issues and demand a serious response. However, I want to make four general points, before trying to address some of the particular inequalities that are being associated with online learning:
- don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: the issue is not will emergency online learning reduce or amplify general inequities in education, but does it offer a better alternative to the majority of learners than just closing down education until Covid-19 disappears?
- the intelligent use of technology can sometimes lead to a reduction in inequality, but much more often, it amplifies the status quo. Thus it can easily increase existing inequalities, and this is a real danger of just moving everything online without considering the full implications;
- there are huge differences between wealthy, developed countries and poor developing countries. This context is critical when looking at the benefits of moving education online. I will discuss the challenge for developing countries in a separate post;
- equality and education move together in a complex dance. Open access, publicly funded education in particular can help reduce inequality to some extent. However, successful public education systems cannot exist unless the prerequisite fundamentals of adequate food, shelter, health, security and good government are already in place, accepting that there is some synergy here with education playing an important role. These issues are independent of whether that education is provided online or not. This applies particularly to racial and ethnic inequalities, but there is also in many countries a class or financial issue as well. Powerful elites can and do torque even a public education system in their favour;
- nevertheless, there are well-tried and effective strategies that can be used to dampen or soften the potential lack of equity caused by moving teaching online. I set some of these out below.
In this post, I will focus on developed countries, and developing countries in the following post.
Serve the majority first
In well-developed, wealthy countries with an already good education system with well-trained teachers, and with widespread and relatively affordable internet access into the home, the move to online learning in a crisis such as Covid-19 makes perfect sense, so long as best practices are employed (see below).
In a country such as Canada, one can expect at least 80% or more of k-12 and post-secondary students to be able to study at home through online learning, at least for a limited period of time (perhaps up to six months). If done properly, this will be far better than cancelling all courses or delaying study or formal learning for six months or longer.
Now there will be still the 10-20% of students who, for a variety of reasons, will have difficulties in accessing online learning. Alternative or parallel arrangements need to be made for such students and these arrangements will differ according to their circumstances (again, see below). Thus any emergency remote learning strategy must (a) identify those students for whom online learning will be a major challenge or impossible and (b) put in place an alternative strategy for those students.
I suspect that we still grossly undervalue the informal learning that can take place outside formal school or institutional curricula. Letting young people learn in their own way or through the help of family, again for a limited period of time, may not be so bad for many learners. However, this is likely to widen inequality even more. It will be wealthy and/or already well-educated families which will have the advantage in self-schooling, in most cases, although there will always be exceptions.
So let’s look at the issues that could lead to inequalities from the sudden move to online learning.
In developed countries, there will be two main challenges to online access:
- remote areas with limited or no online access (this will include anywhere with dial-up modems or direct satellite services). In Canada, this will include many aboriginal communities but also many other rural or remote areas. Studying online needs reasonable bandwidth (10 Mbps or more) and uninterrupted service.
- people living in areas with reasonably good or excellent internet access who cannot afford the telecommunications and equipment costs (computers, etc.).
Both these really require a specific response from governments. Covid-19 has brought home the importance of low cost, high-speed internet access for all, not just for education but for economic development generally. Part of any post Covid-19 economic development strategy should include ramping up investment for coverage of remote communities. Canada already has such a federal program but it is too little and too slow rolling out. To be fair though some of the telecom companies in Canada have rapidly installed fixed wireless access in many such remote communities in response to Covid-19.
In the meantime, provincial governments and school boards should be developing special learning packages for remote communities that can be delivered alongside other essential services, using alternative media, such as print and radio, and even television where there is a suitable local service.
The main challenge will be providing teacher-learner and learner-learner interaction at a distance without using high speed internet. One alternative is to provide appropriate support print packages for parents to help k-12 students with activities. The other is to use standard telephone systems and email, which can operate reasonably effectively with low bandwidth internet connection to connect students, parents and teachers.
With regard to those who cannot afford internet access or computers, government needs to provide emergency funding to support such low-income students and families. This has already been done to some extent in many more wealthy countries through emergency assistance programs or a guaranteed basic minimum income, but the additional costs of learning at home will still be a struggle for low income families. For some the choice will still be between putting food on the table or buying a computer or iPad. However, the Ontario government has partnered with Apple and Rogers to provide over 21,000 iPads with wireless internet and data plans to k-12 students in low income families.
Also universities and colleges fortunate enough to have endowments or wealthy alumni have been raising funding for university students who have suddenly found themselves without income, and in Canada federal and provincial governments have rolled out some initiatives to help students – but not enough, according to some student associations. However, at least in Canada, most students are already likely to have their own home computer and internet access – unless their home happens to be in a remote community.
A study in 2013 of 40,000 college students in Washington State found that
- males, black students, and students with lower levels of academic preparation experienced significantly stronger negative coefficients for online learning compared with their counterparts, in terms of both course persistence and course grades.
- these patterns also suggest that performance gaps between key demographic groups already observed in face-to-face classrooms (e.g., gaps between male and female students, and gaps between White and ethnic minority students) are exacerbated in online courses.
- older students adapted more readily to online courses than did younger students
- the relative effects of online learning varied across academic subject areas.
Once again we see the amplifying effect of online learning on existing inequalities. This does not mean that in an emergency such as Covid-19, there should not be a move to online learning, but that special measures need to be taken to lessen the impact on vulnerable groups. In particular it means ensuring that there is sufficient learner support for more vulnerable groups: in other words, a lower instructor:student ratio, and regular ongoing communication, even at a distance, for those more at risk.
Again, caution is needed in interpreting these results, which are confined to community college students in one state in the USA. Nevertheless, generally some students in some areas will need more help with online learning than others. One size will not fit all. Above all, ongoing learner support from teachers and instructors, even at a distance, is an essential requirement for successful online learning, and especially for more vulnerable groups.
Learners with disabilities
What can be done to support students with disabilities that will impact on their ability to study online? How will deaf students manage if lectures are streamed through Zoom? How will blind students manage learning management systems? The same level of investment for online learning needs to made as to accommodate students with disabilities on campus.
However, without being complacent, online learning has for some time had successful protocols for supporting students with disabilities, such as offering alternative choices of media. One such set of guidelines can be found on the University of Guelph’s Open Learning and Educational Support web site.
Unfortunately, though, in an emergency, many instructors will be unaware of these protocols (which is why instructors should always consult the relevant professional unit responsible for online learning before moving their courses online).
Despite the limitations and the possible exacerbation of existing inequalities, in most developed countries the rapid move to online learning as an emergency during Covid-19 is fully justified.
However, it is not enough to move courses online, even if done well. Institutions and school boards need to develop back-up strategies for students who will have difficulties, either because of where they live or because they are in at risk groups for online learning. This means:
- being aware of the issue,
- identifying which students need additional support,
- developing content in alternative media (print, especially) for such students
- providing online learner support through alternative media such as email and telephone
- ensuring that students at most risk have extra support
- ensuring that there are sufficient instructors or teachers to cope with the demands of online learning.
Even now, there is still time to do this, if this hasn’t been done yet in your jurisdiction.
Over to you
I found this a difficult post to write because I recognise the difficulties many students and parents will face because of the sudden move to online learning. I am sure there are other, better strategies for dealing with the inequities that will result from this move. There is also a limit to what governments in particular can do.
So what are your views on this? Is online learning making matters worse rather than better during Covid-19? Are there other strategies that could be used to reduce inequalities due to the move to online learning? Would it be better just to shut down the whole system for six months or so (equal misery for all!)? Let me have your thoughts and comments on this, please.
The next post will look at developing countries for whom I will suggest a completely different set of strategies.
Brown, C. and Salmi, J. (2020) Putting fairness at the heart of higher education University World News, 18 April
Morgan, T. (2020) Online Teaching with the most basic of tools – email Explorations in the Ed Tech World, March 10
Xi, D. and Jaggers, S. (2013) Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas New York: Columbia College Community College Research Centre