This is the second in a series of posts on online learning in the (k-12) school sector. The first was What needs to be done about online learning in the school sector? 1. An introduction
The problem of access
One really important advantage of public schooling is that most schools are local, and all children can therefore attend. Thus for online learning to be acceptable as an alternative to in-class instruction, it should be available to all children. This was clearly not the case during Covid-19, in even the most economically advanced countries.
When many schools switched to online there were sometimes difficulties for students in accessing the technology needed for successful online learning – and of course these were usually students in low income families or rural areas. But how big was the problem? To answer this, we need to look in more detail at the technical requirements for online learning.
In Canada, 87% of households in 2020 had broadband access at a speed of at least 50 Mb/s for downloads, and 10 Mb/s for uploads. However only 46% of people in rural areas had such broadband access, and only 28% of people in First Nations reserves had such access (CRTC, 2020). Most in these categories would have had narrowband access of 10 MB/s or less, often around 2 Mb/s. In British Columbia, some school boards reported as many as 30% of homes did not have access or equipment during the pandemic.
Secondly, although the overall speed into the home may be as much as 100 MB/s, often, depending on networks and overall demand, actual speed may be anywhere from 25%-50% less than that. Once into the home, the speed to a particular device such as a laptop, tablet or mobile phone will be much less if more than one device is being used at the same time, as was often the case during Covid-19, when many parents were at home, perhaps working, using standard wi-fi in the home. Particularly in multi-member families, then, the speed to the device may be considerably less than 10 Mb/s, even if the household has broadband Internet access. (Bandwidth Calculator enables you to work out what speed you need for a particular household).
Zoom video-conferencing requires between 1.5 – 2.5 Mb/s, but perhaps more importantly, an hour long Zoom conference will use more than 1.3 Gb of data, so a second factor is the cost of data. For many, this will not be a problem, especially if they have a plan with their telecom company that allows unlimited data, but low income families will often have the cheapest plan which will have much stricter data usage limits. This could be a problem not only for low income families, though, if students are getting 10 hours a week or more of Zoom connection.
In comparison, learning management systems require between half to a third of the bandwidth of a video conferencing application, and will therefore usually work well even with narrowband service to the home (2 Mb/s – 10 Mb/s) – so long as someone else is not trying to play video games or streaming Netflix at the same time.
It should also be noted that Powerpoint slides and pdfs can require a lot of bandwidth to download and indeed may not be able to be transmitted as e-mail attachments; it is preferable to use the html-supported text facility within an LMS, instead of uploading lots of Powerpoint slides or pdfs. (We will see it is also better pedagogically in a later post.)
The third cost element is the equipment. Most online learning requires a tablet such as an iPad at the minimum, but preferably at least a laptop computer. But in British Columbia, school districts identified that there were families who have no computer for their children to use, with some finding up to 30% of families surveyed had no access to technology at all.
Even when there is access to the technology at home, it may not be possible for a student to have a dedicated terminal, especially if parents are working from home. This could make synchronous (live) use of technology more difficult without a device available for everyone in the household.
In general, then, moderate use of a video conferencing system such as Zoom will be fine for probably two-thirds to three quarters of households in Canada; the remaining households will either need to ration use of devices, or be given special support, such as loans of equipment. Learning management systems can probably reach 90% of households with any form of Internet access and suitable equipment, and being asynchronous can probably be used without rationing of equipment. This will still leave at least 10% of households needing alternative arrangements.
For many countries, though, the challenges of available Internet access will be much greater. What can be said is that there will always be a significant number of children who will be disadvantaged because they will not have adequate internet or equipment access.
1. Video-conferencing such as Zoom and video-streaming should be used sparingly. It will work for a majority of households in most economically advanced countries, but even in these, there will be situations where synchronous broadband use such as video-conferencing, and even asynchronous use, such as video streaming of lessons, will cause difficulties for students. In less economically advanced countries, its use is likely to be effective mainly in more wealthy, urban areas.
2. Learning management systems can be used wherever there is an Internet connection. Being asynchronous (able to be used at any time) and low bandwidth, students can spend more time connected. It is therefore a better all-purpose technology on which to base home-delivered learning, in terms of equity.
3. In any country, there will be a significant number of students for whom home-based online learning will be either inaccessible or difficult to access. Alternative arrangements need to be made for these students. For instance,
- many school boards or government agencies have provided loans of equipment to students. For instance, British Columbia loaned more than 23,000 computers and devices across every part of the province. School district staff worked to identify and collect equipment already available in schools, while also purchasing extra computers, laptops, tablets and other devices. Some school districts in BC have re-deployed their computer technicians to pre-install learning software or to provide tech support for families who struggle to use technology. In situations where students were living in remote regions with little or no internet or cellphone access, education assistants delivered printed learning packages or flash thumb drives with everything the student needed for continued learning at home.
- The World Bank is actively working with ministries of education in dozens of countries in support of their efforts to utilize educational technologies of all sorts to provide remote learning opportunities for students while schools are closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- radio, television and even printed material via postal services can be and have been used to deliver distance education during the pandemic. However, they need to be integrated/co-ordinated with the school curriculum to be effective. In the UK, the BBC broadcast three hours of curriculum-based primary school programming every weekday, and at least two hours for secondary pupils on BBC Two. (I could find nothing similar from the CBC, Knowledge Network or TVOntario in Canada).
- Some schools in British Columbia are allowing students access to school computer labs, and some First Nations have opened their band offices for students, while maintaining the strict health and safety standards set by the provincial health officer.
- Where schools are open with reduced numbers, priority to children of essential workers has often been given for in-school attendance. Priority could also be given to children from families with no or difficult internet access.
4. After Covid-19, many teachers are likely to want to integrate some elements of online learning into their regular classroom teaching, if they are not already doing so. This will require not only adequate wi-fi access throughout the school, but also high-speed internet piped into the school. Again, this can be a challenge for schools in rural areas. Government however has massive purchasing power. This can be used to leverage agreements with telecom companies. For instance in the early 1990s, the BC government established BCNet. At that time the government negotiated a flat rate deal through a request for proposal to telecom companies to link all government services across the province at the same cost of access, so rural schools would be charged the same rate as schools in dense urban areas for the same level of traffic. State and provincial governments can play an important role on ensuring all schools have equal internet access, no matter where the school is located.
5. Finally national governments need to see internet access in a digital age in the same way as electricity and water were considered during the industrial age: it is an essential service and should be available for everyone, as equally as possible. In Canada in 2019, just before Covid-19, the Federal government had a $6 billion plan to invest in expanding high-speed Internet to all Canadians, with 95% covered by 2026, and 100% by 2030. Even prior to the pandemic, these targets were criticised by several experts as being too far away, given the importance of the Internet to Canada’s economy. Since then, others have criticised the slow rate in which the money has been rolled out. Every government will need to revisit its strategy for universal access to the internet following Covid-19.
Although there are undoubtedly inequities arising from the move to online learning due to the closing of schools and the subsequent move to online learning, it was still the right thing to do. It is better that 75% or more of students continue to receive an education, so long as special arrangements are made to serve those who might otherwise not be able to access online learning.
Equality should be about making sure that as many as possible can receive a good service, not denying an essential service to the majority because some cannot access it as easily. Of course, we need all students back in school, full-time, as soon as is safely possible. In the meantime, we need to ensure that students can at the very least access education during an emergency, and online learning is a reasonable way to do this in those countries where internet access is widely available.