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How to Address Inequities in Remote Learning

A Learning Review

In this learning review, we will focus on how remote learning fell short with regard to the digital divide and what we can do to improve in subsequent terms.

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager

Remote learning under emergency conditions was a “just-in-time” learning experience for both educators and students. Educators and students everywhere “did their best” under pandemic conditions, navigating challenges, and conducting a global experiment in learning, having transitioned with minimal time to plan and prepare. Joseph Luft, the executive director of the Internationals Network for Public School may sum up this emergency best: “I’ m not looking for miracles; I’m just looking for people working to keep kids connected to school.”

So, let’s take a moment to take a breath.

As we wind down from the term and look forward, it’s also helpful to look back, even if the past term was pockmarked with more challenges than successes. Because it’s helpful to do a “learning review” (also known as an “after-action-review” or the more macabre-named “postmortem” ) with the purpose of improving on a global experiment.

Learning reviews examine the following:

  • How the process or system might have fallen short
  • How the process and system can be improved to minimize the impact of shortcomings, going forward

In this learning review, we will focus on how remote learning fell short with regard to the digital divide and what we can do to improve in subsequent terms.

Remote learning exacerbated inequities in education, which existed well before the Spring of 2020. In 2012, The Atlantic article entitled “The Decline of the ‘Great Equalizer,’” Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville stated, “Income depends on educational achievement, and the single best predictor of a child’s likelihood of academic success remains in turn the socio-economic status of his or her mother.”

The above inequities continue in remote learning. Teen Vogue’s “Distance Learning During Coronavirus Worsens Race, Class Inequality in Education” says that according to UC Berkeley education professor Tolani Britton, “The use of distance learning assumes a lot about students’ access to computers, reliable internet connection, space to work at home and parents’ ability to help students with work.” Statistics have determined that this access is sorely lacking, showing big remote learning gaps for low-income and special needs students.

What do some of these inequities look like?

  • Financial instability resulted in students having to prioritize work over school. Impacts include chronic absenteeism. According to The New York Times, “With the vast majority of the nation’s school buildings closed and lessons being conducted remotely, more students than ever are missing class--not logging on, not checking or not completing assignments,” and many students drop out of school completely, unavailable by phone, email, or other forms of communication.
  • Lack of access to computers or a reliable internet connection contributed to chronic absenteeism and decreased learning. “Some teachers report that fewer than half of their students are regularly participating,” per The New York Times, contrasting reports from selective and affluent schools where “close to 100 percent of students are participating in online learning.” A 2017 report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration says that 7 million children do not have home internet service. These same children become students in higher education, who when they return home, do not have access, either.
  • Homeless students who relied on residential programs found themselves with nowhere to go and very few or no resources to connect to remote learning. Dormitories shut down during the pandemic, and along with it, shelter and wellbeing, let alone internet connectivity.
  • Support for English-learners students decreased. Remote learning may have shut out millions of English learners. According to EdWeek, “Teachers who work with English-language learners are more apt to use general digital resources rather than tools designed specifically for English-learners and that English-learner educators reported fewer hours of professional development with digital learning resources than did mainstream teachers,” suggesting that remote learning and school closures may have a huge impact on students with limited understanding of English and thus a limited ability to work independently. Additionally, English-learners who don’t speak one of the major languages may receive less support, as distance learning is likely conducted with English or Spanish, unless the student population dictates otherwise.
  • The needs of students with disabilities were largely ignored in the abrupt transition to remote learning. According to Inside Higher Education, “Students who are deaf or hard of hearing, have low vision or are blind, those with learning disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or a physical disability that requires use of a computer keyboard instead of a mouse, students with mental illnesses or various other challenges, have been put on the backburner ‘en masse,’ as instructors scrambled to transfer two months’ worth of teaching content to a digital format.”
  • Remote learning limited culturally-relevant modes of communication. Research has shown that students from oral-based narrative traditions may not readily ask questions in writing and even if they spoke up in class before, within the context of videoconferencing, be discouraged to engage. Anokye states that “research supports the belief that orality, for instance, is the fundamental mode of expression in the African American community. Nowhere is it better demonstrated than in the oral narrative style. The storytelling tradition is strong among African Americans and abstract observations about life, love, and people are rendered in the form of concrete narrative sequence which may seem to meander from the point and take on episodic frames. This is a linguistic style which causes problems with American mainstream speakers who want to get to the point and be direct.” In the realm of remote learning, video conference discussions may not make space for such expansive and episodic journeys. Furthermore, many questions are taken in written format, whether via chat or by email, which may fly in the face of this cultural context.

If education, as stated by Horace Mann, is “the equalizer of the conditions of men,” then remote learning cannot further the rift between the haves and the have nots. Access must be upheld for all.

In order to address these gaps, we can--and should--enact culturally responsive pedagogy and actions. As Matthew Lynch states in Huffington Post:

“Culturally responsive pedagogy is a student-centered approach to teaching in which the students’ unique cultural strengths are identified and nurtured to promote student achievement and a sense of well-being about the student’s cultural place in the world.”

So, what are some ways to address and bridge inequalities in remote learning under the umbrella of culturally responsive pedagogy?

  • Support English learners. Now more than ever, uphold their culture of origin and perhaps center assignments around their expertise and knowledge, knowing the end goal is language procurement as opposed to learning new subject matter. Include end goals for each assignment--and in a videoconference, proactively double check your language usage. In-classroom instruction affords more feedback from students through body language; this may be absent in videoconferencing. More tips can be found at EdWeek.
  • Allow your class discussions to meander--every student learns in their own specific way, and consider the journeys a mind must make to reach meaningful conclusions about concepts. In a video conferencing platform, this may be more challenging to facilitate, but consider allowing students to discuss topics at will.
  • Digital technology is helpful but it is new to many. Companies are donating laptops and wi-fi connections to mitigate inequity around access. Keep in mind that students are learning new technologies and may need support in the form of training and extra time and understanding. There may be a double-learning-curve for students unfamiliar with technology and digital access, so configure your syllabus and curriculum accordingly, affording time for onboarding and allowing for alternative modes of instruction, such as printed packets.
  • Be inclusive with technology. Learning materials ought to be compatible with screen readers to benefit visually impaired learners and those with learning disabilities.
  • Anne Milne, in a June 2020 Education Central article, advocates upholding online cultural sustainability and nurturing personal relationships online. In addition to asking educators to audit their online spaces to be centered on student needs, she asks educators to consider asking, “How is your virtual space connected--not just to the internet, but with learners’ lives and realities, across subject areas, with the community, and with students’ identities?"
  • Survey your students to understand their interests. Consider building a reading list that centers their interests and offering a culturally-relevant reading list. Such student-centered actions build personal trust between instructors and students and have lasting impacts on learning and intrinsic motivation, which can be hard to nurture in remote learning.
  • Create multiple points of feedback for students. KQED Mindshift reports that in San Leandro, California, “At all grade levels, high-quality feedback makes a difference in student learning Continuing to give that feedback is one of [Joe] Feldman’s recommendations for grading during COVID19. Focusing on that, rather than on the pressure that is often associated with grades, he said, sends the message that teachers care about what’s happening in students’ lives.” Maintaining feedback loops is critical in remote learning, where most teacher-student interaction can take place.
  • Gather data on student learning to check for understanding and provide formative feedback, through item analysis and one on one interactions with students, whether in written student-to-teacher emails or in face-to-face video-based office hours. Ensure multiple channels of communication so as to be inclusive of different styles of learning and communication. Some students will be more comfortable with written communication, while others may find it challenging to open up without face-to-face discussion.

Karen Strassler wrote in The New York Times, “Equality in the classroom is a fiction — it would be absurd to suggest otherwise. It’s painfully obvious that only some of my students benefited from strong high school educations. Others start college inadequately prepared in foundational reading and writing skills. Many are immigrants who struggle with academic English and miss the cultural references that would make our readings more readily accessible. Race, gender, class, sexuality, citizenship status and other factors shape who feels confident speaking up in class and who feels afraid of saying the wrong thing. When we pretend such inequities don’t exist, we allow them to persist unchallenged. But like other utopian dreams, the fiction of equality — cultivated by those generic rooms with their uniform chairs — also has its value.”

As educators, we are building a narrative and reaching towards equality. While equity may not exist today, we have a responsibility and ensuing choice to move towards equity, as individuals and as institutions, semester by semester, course by course, assignment by assignment, and student by student.