This paper aims to provide a targeted overview of relevant digital equity gap literature that serves to contextualize the current crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this review of the literature, the author introduces five guidelines that educators can use to guide their decisions about how to adapt to remote learning. It concludes with an overview and full text of two tools educators and researchers can use to better understand the challenges faced by students: the Digital Equity Gap Interview Protocol and the Digital Equity Gap Survey Instrument.
This conceptual paper is grounded on the theoretical framework of Martha Nussbaum's “Capability Approach,” which outlines core human capabilities that (if fostered) enable individuals to generate valuable outcomes for themselves.
It is suggested that it is important to attend to human capabilities when addressing digital equity gaps exacerbated by the pandemic. The author provides two tools that are intended to help individuals gather important information about the communities they serve and/or study.
Both tools provide descriptive information that will contextualize digital equity gaps, should they be present.
This paper provides concrete tools for educators who wish to understand digital equity gaps within the communities they serve.
In time of unprecedented distance learning, it is important for both K-12 educators and higher education instructors to understand the technological capabilities of their students. The Digital Equity Gap Interview Protocol and the Digital Equity Gap Survey Instrument give them a place to start.
This paper fulfills an identified need to study and address digital equity gaps.
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The imposed ubiquity of online and remote learning initiatives in response to the COVID-19 crisis is poised to compound already present educational inequities in the USA. Recent policy briefs, for example, have shown that even after accounting for income, students of color are less able to adapt to the requirements of remote learning because they do not have access to the necessary technology to do so (Galperin et al., 2020a). The same pattern holds true in rural households (Galperin et al., 2020b). In contrast, the United Kingdom has invested £1.6m to purchase 4 G routers and laptops for disadvantaged children (UK Department for Education, 2020). Similar approaches in the USA have been localized and somewhat sporadic; some communities, for example, have responded to low-income students’ needs by providing internet through hotspots mounted to buses or other vehicles (WRAL TechWire, 2020, Seibold, 2020). Regardless of these efforts, the “digital equity gap” or “digital divide” that COVID-19 has made salient is poised to negatively impact learning outcomes for vulnerable student populations. At this point in time the extent and long-term consequences of lost learning opportunities is unknown. Still, it is clear that educators and administrators should take steps to understand the challenges faced by the students they serve to mitigate negative outcomes.
The post-COVID-19 educational landscape requires educators to better attend to differences among their students with respect to both the type of technology their students have access to (e.g. tablets, laptops, desktops), and the infrastructure they have access to (e.g. high-speed internet, a quiet place to study). In the text that follows, I provide a targeted overview of relevant digital divide literature to give background information to those who need it. Importantly, I emphasize that the digital divide is not new; it is, in fact, a wound on our educational system that has been left to fester. The consequences of it are being felt more acutely by vulnerable communities now that added pressure has been applied to it.
Following my review of the literature, I introduce a set of guidelines that educators can use to think through the various decisions they need to make with respect to the communities they serve. This set of guidelines is based on the moral philosophy of Nussbaum’s (2011) Capability Approach theoretical framework, which emphasizes freedom as a means to achieve well-being, and argues for individuals to act in a manner that fosters other individuals’ capabilities (i.e. possibilities to influence one’s life for the better). I argue that, in this time of arrested freedom of movement, educators must create possibilities for their students to continue to learn and lead flourishing lives, irrespective of the technology they have access to. My guidelines are intended to serve as a touchstone for educators as they intervene on difficult situations to slow the growth of widening achievement gaps.
I conclude with an overview of two tools educators can use to better understand the challenges faced by students in their communities: an interview protocol and a survey instrument. Both appear in their entirety in Appendices 1 and 2, and are also accessible via an Open Science Framework project (Aguilar, 2020a). Results from the survey, interview, or both, can be used to collect information about challenges students and parents face within their communities. This information, in turn, can be used to inform their instructional design choices and outreach efforts.
Understanding the digital equity gap
K-12 digital equity gap
The digital equity gap in K-12 education has largely moved beyond a binary paradigm characterized by students who have access to technology, and students who do not (Warschauer, 2002; Dolan, 2016). Instead, the current digital equity gap is characterized by what sort of technology students have access to, where they access it, and what kind of infrastructure is in place to enable its use. Before COVID-19, for example, libraries provided a mechanism for students to access technology they would otherwise be unable to use (Schuck et al., 2017). Such resources are necessary, as recent survey of 1,043 families in Watts, South Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, CA has shown that close to 50% of students rely on school-issued equipment to do their homework, 20% do not have a device at all, and 16% do not have any access to the internet (Partnership for LA Schools, 2020). These patterns of inequity were present before COVID-19; work from over 10 years ago shows that teachers routinely assigned homework that required students to use technologies predicated on resources they did not have access to complete it (Baek and Freehling, 2007). That pattern has, unfortunately, persisted well into this decade (Anderson and Perrin, 2018).
Notably, the digital equity gap grows during a time when school districts continue invest in technology. School districts invested about $8.4bn on products developed by the educational technology industry during the 2017–2018 academic school year (Davis, 2019). Such sums of money were spent in hopes that educational technologies would improve student outcomes (FutureSource, 2016; Nagel, 2016). Unfortunately, new technologies also have the potential to create barriers for low-income students. The expectation to complete homework online introduced challenges for students who had limited access to technology (e.g. no computer at home) and infrastructure (e.g. inadequate high-speed internet; McLaughlin, 2016). Investing in educational technologies, then, may have inadvertently led to the exacerbation of digital inequities experienced by underserved student populations (Krueger, 2015). The digital equity gap in K12 education, then, can be characterized as deploying resources in a way that ignores important contextual factors.
Higher education digital equity gap
Recent technological innovation in education has been implemented for and by higher education institutions. Non-profit organizations focused on increasing access to college (e.g. GetSchooled.com, Collegeaccessplan.org), for example, have developed internet tools designed to facilitate the college preparation process (Tierney et al., 2014). Social media also plays a role; Ellison et al. (2014), for example, found that adolescents are sometimes exposed to new career choices, life paths and cultures through social media platforms, but that this was less the case when social media networks mirrored in-person networks too closely.
Unfortunately, there is often a disconnect between information about college, the digital ecosystem used to share that knowledge with students, and the actions students take to become college ready – especially for low-income students. For students to search for and use information about college, information must be presented to students in ways that are accessible to them (Perna, 2006). This is especially true now that social distancing guidelines have effectively cut off students from in-person networks that would have been present otherwise.
Advances in technology have also been focused on streamlining financial aid processes, as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is almost exclusively online. Yet, relying on technology during the college and financial aid application process represents a particularly insidious barrier for historically underserved students (Melendez, 2017; Venegas, 2006). Well-meaning shifts toward online application systems, for example, have been shown to present challenges for students without computers or broadband at home. In fact, only 57% of families earning under $25,000 a year have a computer at home (Tate and Warschauer, 2017). Even when access is not the core issue, work has shown a disconnect between the digital information and tools available to students, the information and tools students actually access, and the actions students take to become college-ready, especially for students from historically marginalized backgrounds (Brown et al., 2016).
Despite substantial investments, schools are not immune to the effects of not having access to the right technology. Interventions designed to teach students about college and financial aid have been shown to fall flat due to inadequate or outdated school equipment incapable of running newer software (Lanford et al., 2019). Race and class also play a role, as work from Goode (2010) shows that both race and class influence how college students construct their digital identities.
Digital equity guidelines
How might educators interested in helping reduce the negative impact of the pandemic do so? Before I turn to describing concrete tools that educators can use to gather information about the communities they serve, I pause to outline a set of guidelines that will help orient both K-12 teachers and higher education instructors toward thinking about their pedagogical, organizational, and personal reactions to the pandemic in a manner that centers their community’s need for equitable practices. Such practices, I argue, should increase community members’ opportunities to generate positive outcomes for themselves. In this way, support from organizations or individuals need not fall into the trap of tone-deaf paternalism or “white savior-ism” (Cole, 2012). Instead, help should acknowledge and support the agency of the members within the communities they serve. My guidelines are distinct from similar ones (e.g., Holz, 2018), in that they are based on three of Nussbaum’s (2011) ten central capabilities that should be supported to ensure that individuals can generate valuable outcomes for themselves and live fully human lives. The following guidelines thus focus on the capabilities of: Senses, Imagination and Thought; Affiliation; and Play.
Senses, imagination and thought
“Senses, imagination and thought” is a capability that is focused on:
[…] being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason – and to do these things in a ‘truly human’ way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training (Nussbaum, 2011, pp. 766–78).
It is perhaps the capability that is most directly tied to formal education, as it is both furthered by the process of education, and gives rise to works that can educate others. This capability centers our individual choices to use our imagination and thoughts to consume and produce works that enrich our lives.
Nurturing this capability in our students supports their ability to think and reason so that they may engage with their environment in productive ways of their choosing. During this pandemic our senses are restricted to a few environments, as we are not free to move about and experience the world as we once were. The task of educators, then, is to strive to design educational experiences that encourage imagination, and push students to think in ways that are critical and reflective of their own experiences. I operationalize this capability via the following two guidelines.
Guideline 1. Give students “big picture” projects that draw on various disciplines, instead of attempting to recreate a school-like structure that would be difficult to achieve in the best of times.
Guideline 2. Embrace asynchronous activities. The ubiquity of video-conferencing software and other educational technologies create an illusory sense of obligation to use them. While face-to-face interactions are important, relying on synchronous experience may place more burdens on families who otherwise might find creative ways to achieve educational objectives.
“Affiliation” is not simply the act of having relationships. Instead, it is characterized by two related imperatives. The first is:
[…] being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other humans, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another.
The second is: “having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others” (Nussbaum, 2011, pp. 76–78). To be affiliated with another, then, is to also have empathy for their situation and expect the same in return. Nussbuam goes further to argue that affiliation and discrimination (on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, etc.) are incompatible with one another.
Educators should feel responsible to maintain affiliations with their students. Affiliation is central to educators’ shift toward promoting digital equity because it asks educators to take the perspective of their students in a manner that encourages them to find solutions that encourage their students’ agency, while still respecting the cultural backgrounds and circumstances of their students. Maintaining strong affiliations is especially important due to social isolation protocols that will likely ebb and flow until a more permanent solution is found.
Guideline 3. Find ways to connect with students. Maintaining affiliations does not require synchronous interactions – sending students letters that ask them to engage with a topic of mutual interest does not require a computer, for example. Educators can, of course, use technologies if they know their students have a way of using a chosen technology.
Guideline 4. Learn more about students and their families. Aside from assigning learning objectives and coursework, educators would do well to take the time to understand the backgrounds of their students and families, so that they can be more fully aware of their circumstances. This goes both ways, as educators can also share more about their lives so that the connection is strengthened.
To play is to engage in recreation and obstacle for no other reason than to enjoy the process (Nussbaum, 2011). Play, I argue, is necessary in these times of calamity because it provides a safe space for students to explore ideas, or simply escape into a semi-structured experience during a time when structure may be lacking. Play, moreover, has been shown to be associated with positive learning outcomes for children and adolescents (Coolahan et al., 2000; Honeyford, and Boyd, 2015). Successful opportunities for play can also help students feel competent, autonomous and connected to others, all of which are core concepts of motivation as described by Self-Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan, 2008) – which proposes that “autonomy, competence, and relatedness” contribute to an individual’s intrinsic motivation.
Guideline 5. Foster opportunities for students to play in manner that encourages them to engage with ideas, foster a sense of agency or give them opportunities to be connected to others.
Tools for understanding the digital equity gap
I conclude by describing two instruments that educators can use to better understand the digital equity contexts in their communities (see the Appendices 1 and 2 for the full-text instruments). As written, both instruments presume that parents or heads of household will answer questions, though higher education instructors are encouraged to adapt questions so that their students can answer them. It is important to note that K-12 teachers may require their school’s or district’s research ethics board approval before asking parents to take a survey or participate in an interview. Relatedly, higher education instructors interested in using the following instruments for research purposes need approval from their instructional review board. I encourage both sets of educators to review institutional policies before engaging in formal or informal research.
The first is tool the “Digital Equity Gap Interview Protocol,” which is a qualitative instrument consisting of a series of questions an interviewer can ask an individual. Educators using this instrument are encouraged to take notes during the interview, but not necessarily feel compelled to write down responses verbatim. Interviews can take place over the phone, and need not be structured as formal interviews; for example, one need not pose each question sequentially without also leaving space for the conversation to develop organically. Both K-12 and higher education instructors are thus encouraged to treat interviews more as opportunities to have a conversation and increase affiliations toward the communities they serve (and thus attend to guidelines three and four).
The second is the “Digital Equity Gap Survey,” which is a quantitative instrument intended to be administered using survey software such as Qualtrics, paper surveys or a combination of both. Items from this survey will yield descriptive results that will help educators understand their students’ contexts, and are not necessarily intended to draw any statistical inferences. Instead, users of this instrument are encouraged to aggregate results by calculating the percentage of parents, students, etc., who fall into respective categories (e.g., the percentage of households who use broadband cable internet, DSL or cellphone hot spots). Knowing such information in the aggregate for a given school, classroom, etc., will help educators make informed decisions regarding how to adapt their instruction. One would not want to rely on video-conferencing software, for example, if it was clear that students’ internet bandwidth was limited.
Regardless of the tool used, more contact with stakeholders is the ultimate goal of both tools. For K-12 teachers, work has shown teachers with higher confidence in their parent-related communication competence more often talk about parent-related issues with colleagues, which, in turn, helps troubleshoot issues that come up (Gartmeier et al., 2016). Both instruments can be used as they are, adapted, or used as inspiration for developing more questions that attend to specific community features or developments (e.g. newfound broadband availability).
Each instrument is divided into four main sections: “Internet Infrastructure at Home,” “Support for Remote Learning,” “Indicators of Economic Distress,” and “Indicators of Community Support.” The interview protocol is designed to take anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour to administer, but times will necessarily vary based on the length of answers given. The survey instrument mirrors the structure of the interview protocol, but provides answers that respondents can select (in an online survey), or circle (in a paper version). It is designed to take no longer than 15 minutes to complete. Table 1 provides a summary of the guidelines, and how they map onto the survey and interview tools I describe below (see Aguilar, 2020b for the latest version of both tools.)
Indicators for internet infrastructure at home
Understanding the technology that students have access to is essential for implementing any remote solution or outreach efforts. This includes knowing what students’ internet infrastructure is like at home, as well as the actual devices that your students will be using. Internet infrastructure includes not only access to the internet but also what sort of internet connection your students have. Is it broadband? Is it shared? If it is shared, among how many? Is internet access restricted to a cell-phone hotspot? Knowing the devices students use to access work is equally important since incompatible devices can serve as impediments to learning, rather than facilitate it. The survey gives responses that families can select, all of which can be adapted based on additional information educators might have about their communities.
Indicators for support for remote learning
Remote and/or online learning solutions are ultimately implemented by students and their families. As such, it is important for educators to know what support is or isn’t available to their students. This will help ensure that remote learning solutions do not fall flat. It is thus important to know who students ask for help when they have trouble (e.g. a parent or a sibling), and if the pace of the work is appropriate (e.g. too fast, too slow). The interview protocol operationalizes this with four questions, and educators are encouraged to give plenty of time for parents or other stakeholders to answer. When in doubt, asking for clarification or asking interviewees to “tell you more,” may help.
Indicators of economic distress
Currently, in spring 2020, the unemployment rate is around 14% (Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, 2020), which indicates that a lot of families are struggling. Being aware of the extent of those struggles is critical to know which resources to deploy and how to structure educational experiences. For educators who have access to student information systems (SIS), contacting families and keeping track of which phone numbers have been disconnected may be a way to track economic distress. If educators are able to reach families, knowing what resources they require to implement remote learning plans is important.
Indicators of community support
As the above guidelines suggest, it is important to not be guided by a deficiency perspective that centers families’ struggles. That is why it is also important to capture indicators of community support, may unveil previously unknown resources that communities are deploying on their own. This may include sharing internet connectivity – or other technologies – with others. That information will help educators know what resources are being used, and may also be useful for determining which resources are being stretched thin.
The digital equity gap is persistent and has manifested in different ways based on which new technologies have become prevalent in educational settings. Importantly, this gap should not be understood as a simple binary characterized by those who have everything they need and those who do not – that characterization has not been accurate for at least 20 years (Warschauer, 2002). Instead, the digital equity gap results from a gap in understanding on the part of well-intentioned educational organizations that wish to implement novel, technology-driven approaches without sufficiently investigating what is possible within the communities they serve.
I encourage educators to deploy the survey instrument (and adapt it as needed) before the start of the fall 2020 term, once they have contact information necessary to launch it. Higher education instructors can also adapt both tools for their undergraduates so that they obtain important information the technological capabilities of their students. Sending a survey to understand students’ circumstances will signal that educators care about what resources students have access to. Surveys should be sent with care, however, as students and/or their families may already be inundated with surveys and may not have the bandwidth to answer another one.
K-12 might teachers might benefit more from conducting interviews using some or all of the questions in the Digital Equity Gap Interview Protocol. Doing so would give space for unanticipated struggles and successes to come to light, both of which can be shared with other stakeholders (e.g., administrators) to ensure that schools and higher education institutions have more information as they develop plans for the fall.
Educators are encouraged to pick and choose questions from both instruments that are most pertinent to their communities, or to use both instruments as starting points for their own customized approaches. Regardless of the tools used, in this time of isolation imposed by our response to the COVI-19 pandemic, it important for educators to build or maintain connections that minimize digital equity gaps, and that begins with taking the time to gather important information about one’s students.
Mapping digital equity guidelines to survey and interview tools
|Central capability||Guidelines||Survey and interview instrument sections|
|Senses, imagination and thought||1. Give students “big picture” projects that draw on various disciplines||• Support for remote learning|
|2. Embrace asynchronous activities||• Internet infrastructure at home
• Support for remote learning
|Affiliation||3. Find ways to connect with students||• Indicators of community support|
|4. Learn more about students and their families||• Indicators of economic distress
• Indicators of community support
|Play||5. Foster opportunities for students to play in manner that encourages them to engage with ideas, foster a sense of agency or give them opportunities to be connected to others||• Indicators of community support|
Appendix 1. Digital equity gap interview protocol
Internet infrastructure at home
Does your home have dedicated internet access?
If not, where do you go when you need to access the internet?
If yes, what type (e.g. broadband, cell phone hotspot)
What device (s) do you use to access the internet at home?
Are the above devices shared by more than one person? (If so, who?)
If your device (s) stop working, who do you contact for help?
Have you made any new technology purchases since stay-at-home orders were issued?
If so, what?
If not, what devices would you purchase if you could?
Support for remote learning
(5)Who do your children ask for help when they have trouble with their schoolwork?
If older siblings: who do the older siblings ask for help?
(6)Does your home have a dedicated space for your children/child to study?
(7)Do your children complete their schoolwork at the same time every day?
(8)Are your children able to keep up with their schoolwork?
If no, what stops them? (e.g. distracted, too much work, etc.)
Indicators of economic distress
(9)Note if phone numbers disconnected
(10)Is the primary income earner still employed?
(11)Are there any school supplies you have run out of and cannot purchase?
(12)For parents of HS seniors: Have your child’s plans changed due to economic hardship?
Indicators of community support
(13)Do you coordinate with other parents at your children’s school to understand/complete school assignments?
(14)If reported having internet access at home: Do you share your internet with anyone outside of your immediate family?
Appendix 2. Digital Equity Gap Survey
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This article is part of the special issue, “A Response to Emergency Transitions to Remote Online Education in K-12 and Higher Education” which contains shorter, rapid-turnaround invited works, not subject to double blind peer review. The issue was called, managed and produced on short timeline in Summer 2020 toward pragmatic instructional application in the Fall 2020 semester.