Understanding the Inherent Challenges of Digital Equity in Blended Learning
Blended learning—a combination of both synchronous, in-person instruction and asynchronous online learning—continues to prove itself to be one of the most effective ways of teaching and learning. In order for students to actually benefit from the blended learning model, digital equity must be addressed and foregrounded in schools and districts across the nation. It’s deeper than simply having access to a computer and an internet connection, though. Digital equity is ensuring that all students have:
- Access to hardware, software, and connectivity to the internet
- Access to meaningful, high-quality, and culturally relevant content
- Access to creating, sharing, and exchanging digital content
- Access to educators who know how to use digital tools and resources
- Access to high-quality research on the application of digital technologies to enhance learning
There is no one-size-fits-all approach. But, in many schools, the most exciting digital opportunities are disproportionately granted to those students with the highest abilities. Low achieving or high risk students are less likely to even be in the class where these opportunities occur. Because, historically, digital access and literacy have been viewed in our society as a private luxury rather than a public good.
Despite all of the promises of technology, it’s important to remember that the presence of technology and equity are not inevitable partners. And even though educators can effectively blend learning in myriad ways; and blended learning practices, developed through an equity lens, can increase opportunities for all learners, what we cannot do is ignore the inherent challenges that digital inequity brings to light.
Students in low income and underserved communities lack access.
Geographical location matters a lot when it comes to issues of digital equity. The cost of hardware, software, and internet connection remains just out of reach for many families. Issues can even manifest in homes with internet connection that is not up to par, causing slow downloads or lagging load times. Mobile-only access, for example, is a form of under-connectedness. Parents and students who only have internet connection via a smartphone or tablet go online less often and for an abbreviated number of activities, compared to families with home internet service and a computer.
These students are rarely given the opportunity to interact with technology as a creator or producer (opposed to a consumer), and it’s partly influenced by the socioeconomic status of their home and school. It’s difficult, after all, if you’re having to sit in the parking lot of your public school, community college, or local McDonald’s to try to tap into their WiFi. Students without proper access often act as a consumer of digital technology by default, while those with access are empowered to be producers.
As educators, we need to consider that simple access to computers and the internet is a necessary first step in balancing digital equity. However, it’s how teachers and students use technology that impacts learning.
Teacher preparation and educational leadership programs do not focus on issues of equity.
Most teachers need to go through a developmental process of professional learning to achieve greater transformations of teaching through technology, yet most teachers do not do so. In teacher preparation courses and educational leadership programs, it’s common to study the historic education decisions, such as Brown vs. Board of Education, or address situations as they are relevant to current events. Unfortunately, since there are so many topics and requirements that these programs must meet, there is little incentive or interest in understanding and highlighting issues related to equity on a grander scale.
It’s valuable to recognize that most educators involved in blended learning have not had training in the importance of accessibility and equity, or how to ensure digital materials and tools are accessible to all students. Digital access is not addressed in any significant way in most instructional design programs across the U.S. either. Additionally, most faculty members at teacher preparation programs are not aware of the legal requirements for serving students with disabilities.
So, the question becomes: how can we, as educators, challenge ourselves to learn more about digital tools and weave them into our work to, at best enhance learning and support, and at least enable continuity of service when disasters strike—not just pandemics, but hurricanes, earthquakes, school shootings, or anything else that may arise?
Technology isn’t fully accessible to students with disabilities.
In order for technology to be fully accessible, students with disabilities must have the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services in the same timeframe as students without disabilities. For students with special needs, accessing instruction in a brick-and-mortar classroom is often difficult enough. Instructional aides and co-teachers often work with them directly or pull them into small groups to focus on a specific lesson. Some students with disabilities require special technology to accommodate physical impairments.
Across the country, blended learning environments are in the works. Schools everywhere are preparing for a new normal in education. Every inequity that we were ever faced with in the traditional classroom is magnified when done at a distance. How do we, as educators, reach students without devices at home, without stable internet connections at home, or without homes at all? How do various teacher preparation programs facilitate online teacher training for those working with students with disabilities while promoting teacher retention and effectiveness? And how do strategies for teaching students with disabilities have to shift in order to be effective in various blended learning environments? One thing’s for sure, we have a lot of work to do.