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Online Learning Underscores Importance of Well Being, Structure

May 5, 2020

Over the past several weeks I’ve read countless articles on the impact of online learning. This Verge article “Online Schooling Has a Tech Issue No Apps Can Fix” by Nat Garun stood out because it dug deeply into some underlying issues that contribute to the inequities that online learning exacerbates: inequities in student well-being and the structure of student’s lives.

Grain opens his article with data describing the digital divide, covering issues I’ve cited in previous posts:

Only 56 percent of households with incomes under $30,000 have access to broadband internet, according to Pew Research Center. Where students are located also presents connectivity issues, with kids in rural areas unable to connect to mobile hotspots and cellular service from their homes.

Even when there is stable coverage, some families simply lack the laptops, tablets, or other devices required to log online.

But Garun turns to the more subtle issues that impact these students: the differential in their well-being and their daily lives. He notes that students raised in poor households often have parents who work in the low wage jobs that are deemed “essential” and therefore have no adult supervision. This, in turn, leads to a situation where the student’s daily schedule is non-existent or they are temporarily moved to the home of a relative or caregiver. In both instances, many of the students become depressed and unmotivated to do their classwork. When this lack of well-being is combined with the lack of digital resources the effect can be calamitous. The majority of the article describes how teachers are coping with these circumstances, how they are finding themselves working 24/7 to connect with students who fail to return phone calls or students who turn to them for moral support.

Grain concludes that the digital divide is not going to be closed any time soon:

The tech gap isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. The Department of Education and the Federal Communications Commission have begun urging states to put $16 billion in educational aid built into the CARES Act toward remote learning. But even if that happens, it’s unlikely to be anywhere close to enough. States are seeing large revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic, leading some states — like New York — to look at billions of dollars in education budget cuts alone to close the gap.

He’s right: legislation that “urges” states to invest a portion of the $16 billion they are receiving in digital technology won’t go far, especially when they are facing billions in cuts in one state alone! And his upbeat description of a Brooklyn teacher’s celebrating of small victories seems to paper over a hard reality that is lurking: those billions of dollars that are lacking are likely to result in a continuing lack of resources for schools… and those resources will be human resources like teachers, mental health workers, and other community supports that contribute to the small victories teachers experience.

In overlooking the inevitable collision course that lies ahead between diminishing financial support and increased student needs the article misses an opportunity to figure out how, exactly, those needs might be met in the future. One thing is clear, if we retain the current paradigm the school district budgets will be woefully inadequate and students will suffer. NOW is the time to begin floating new idea on staffing schools and determining the roles of public schools. For example, teachers might be paid, say, 75% of their current salaries and assigned 75% fewer students. If this approach were taken it would expand the workforce by adding lower compensated new teachers thereby diminishing the unemployment roles and the cost/student ins school district. Such a move would also diminish the pupil-teacher ratio, and thereby enhance the opportunity for teachers and students to interact. This, in turn, would enable teachers to focus on student well-being instead of solely worrying about their academic achievement, achievement that often has its roots in the well-being and not in the student’s “ability”. A student who has his or her own bedroom, his or her own digital device, has nurturing parents who work reasonable hours and provide nourishing meals at predictable hours is far more likely to have “academic ability” than a student who is uncertain where they will sleep, is uncertain who will be caring for them and where their next meal is coming from. The first student might be concerned that their 3 year old computer or phone lacks bells-and-whistles that the latest iPad provides. The latter student is concerned about a lot more….

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