Ensuring Equity During Distance Learning

Over the last two decades, technology has played an increasingly pivotal role in learning. Yet, with nearly one in five students between kindergarten and 12th grade lacking access to computers or speedy internet connection, the sad reality is that inequity surrounding technology exists in our educational landscape. This inequity has been exacerbated during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

As former Secretary of Education and current Executive Director of Education Trust, John B. King said in a recent interview with EdSurge, “COVID-19 has put our existing inequities in sharper relief and exacerbated them. The sad reality is we give the least to the students who need the most. We give low-income students and students of color less access to early childhood education, less access to resources in K-12…” When COVID closed schools, the  “schoolhouse door was barred for them because they didn’t have internet access.”

With many school districts switching to fully online or hybrid class schedules temporarily, access to technology is more essential than ever. Without reliable internet or a laptop or tablet, vulnerable students already facing challenges are put at greater risk of falling behind their peers. Luckily, there is a bright side! While the shift to hybrid and distance learning does shine a light on existing inequalities, it can also help address some of the gaps surrounding education and inequality. This blog will explore the role of technology in improving equity in education, including several best practices to use in hybrid and distance learning environments this fall.

Before we can address the challenges facing equitable education, it is important to understand what equity is. In the simplest terms, equity focuses on fairness, which is not the same as equality. Equity recognizes that all students do not come from the same starting point. Unlike equality, the concept of equity is not about everybody receiving the same resources. Instead, equity in education requires a flexible approach that embraces the idea that everybody will need to receive different resources in order to stand on an equal playing field. The below image of “the fence cartoon” helps explain the difference by attempting to simply illustrate the complex idea.

(Image Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire)
A note about the above image: There have been numerous constructive conversations about “the fence cartoon”, and we use it here as a very simple example of a very complex issue. This blog post from Cultural Organizing goes into detail about the image and how it could be improved. It’s worth a read!

We recently connected with Joe C., the vice principal of a charter school in Washington, DC, where he is helping to create the next generation of leaders. Joe works hard to provide students with rigorous content that is balanced for their social emotional learning needs. Over the course of his career, he has been a special education coordinator, a special education teacher, and a math teacher. Through his experiences, he has faced the opportunity gap that presents challenges for students of differing backgrounds. He has also seen the impact COVID-19 has had on educators as more classes are moved from brick and mortar classrooms to virtual experiences.

We talked to Joe about the impact of COVID-19 on the educators at his school, and what his students are facing as they seek to continue learning during the pandemic. When schools closed in March, “educators had to become more reflective and innovative. The pandemic has showcased the disparity, not just in math pedagogy, but in the equity gap students have in terms of what resources are available to them. It’s making educators look at things more holistically than they have in the past.”

Joe also reflected on the impact technology will have in this upcoming school year. He looked back on spring 2020 noting that there was “this assumption that we would give everyone a Chromebook and the needed resources while maintaining some level of live instruction.” Ultimately, it became “clear that approach wasn’t equitable because all of their students didn’t have access to the same resources.” There is a massive difference between each child in a family having their own computer or iPad to work on and each child in a family sharing one cell phone with their parent. This is why it is important for schools and districts to recognize the different starting points of each student and work to provide the needed resources. Imagine being a student living in a more under-served area of town. By having the school system provide you with similar resources a friend across town receives from their family it allows you a greater chance for similar academic success.

Even though COVID-19 has highlighted the disparities around access to technology, this moment in time also provides ways that technology can be used to level the playing field by understanding the needs facing each student. Technology lets educators look at the data quickly, accurately, and validate their gut feelings. Teachers can use data to focus instructional strategies around each individual student’s access to technology and learning preferences.

Second, technology provides a whole host of resources and programs that educators can use to personalize learning for their students. To Joe, technology can be used to “accommodate and scaffold the level of support. If you have two students working on percentages, one student might need a hands-on guide, while another can use a digital tool. Technology allows teachers to keep the bar high but understand that individual students need different things to reach that bar.”

“Some resources worked well for some students but not all. Some parents could support them, some couldn’t. Closing our school building because of COVID-19 forced us to revise our approach to teaching and learning, to balance equity with rigor and incorporate remediation.”

There are some things to keep in mind when considering the best practices for making technology more equitable in education. Joe urges teachers to take time to understand their students so they can know what resources and technologies are available at home. Looking back at what he and his colleagues learned this spring, Joe reflected that “some resources worked well for some students, but not all of them. Some parents could support their kids, but some couldn’t because they weren’t able to work from home.”

It is imperative in these challenging and changing times that educators take time to build relationships with their students, even if it’s over Zoom or Google Meet. They need to understand each student’s individual situation at home in order to know how to meet their needs. Taking a personal interest in each student is also essential with limited in-person interactions. This helps build the bond between teacher and student. A simple way for teachers to work on establishing these relationships is to utilize a student’s name or preferred nickname, paying particular attention to proper pronunciation.

While the global pandemic has caused massive disruptions to education in the United States, it’s also provided an opportunity for teachers, schools and districts to make a concerted effort to be more equitable. After schools shifted to distance learning, Joe’s school “had to offer a fourth quarter grade of completion because there was no way to equitably assess what students had done.” But the positive outcome is that “it forced us to revise our approach and balance equity with rigor while we incorporated remediation.”

How are you ensuring equity in your classroom, school or district? We’d love to know! Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and share your thoughts. If you’re looking for math resources to use in distance learning, click here. We’re currently offering a discount, so if you’re ready to buy, click here!

TouchMath is a multisensory math program that makes critical math concepts appealing and accessible for students who struggle to understand grade-level content. TouchMath is committed to maximizing student potential through its worldwide delivery of hands-on math programs, cultivating success with individuals of all abilities and learning styles.

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