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The Digital Divide and Remote Learning

5 min readjuly 18, 2021


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How the Digital Divide Is Contributing to Problems in Remote Learning

Even before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning gained traction in many school districts around the country as internet access and broadband speeds gradually allowed for a greater number of virtual classrooms.
While it might be easy to think that kids just wake up, log in, and start learning, the reality is that students, parents, and teachers are still adapting to these new learning environments — and not all families have equal access to the connectivity required for online or remote learning.

What Is the Digital Divide?

The term “digital divide” refers to the disparity between those who can benefit from using computers and other electronic devices, including the internet, and those who cannot. The divide overwhelmingly affects individuals who are poor, rurally-located, elderly, and people with cognitive and physical disabilities.
With only limited access to the outside world, the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors moved the digital divide into the spotlight as schools worldwide turned to remote online learning to continue educating children.
While this setup benefitted many who no longer had to commute to work or school, those without electronics or internet access have largely been left behind. Even for many of those who weren’t directly abandoned, online learning has left them feeling unprepared for the workforce, college, and even life in general.

The Cost of Remote Learning

To take full advantage of the online learning environment, students need to have access to these essential resources:
  • Computer: The average price for a computer has hovered around $630 for the past couple of years. Because of this high cost, nearly 4.4 million U.S. households sometimes, rarely, or never have access to a computer.
  • Printer: Standard household printers generally cost between $200 and $500. Although many assignments are completed digitally, printers are still a must-have electronic for remote online learning. 
  • Software: Many school districts utilize learning management software (LMS) to teach students and staff, which is almost always free for students to use. However, students may need other essentials like word processing software to complete their assignments.
  • Internet access: While the average broadband bill is $50 to $60 per month, this can soar to $150+ for the fastest fiber-optic connections. Because of this cost or the family’s location, approximately 19 million Americans don’t have access to a fixed broadband service.
  • Webcam: Most modern computers feature built-in webcams, although many older models do not. If parents have to purchase one for their child’s online learning, they can expect to pay anywhere from $25 to $130+, depending on the model and features.
  • Microphone: Similarly, most computers and webcams have built-in microphones. Parents might have to purchase third-party microphones for those that don’t. 
With the world moving into digital and remote learning at a rapid pace, what are the options for closing this divide? 

Bridging the Gap

The digital divide is vast, but the good news is that school districts are making concerted efforts to narrow the gap and bring as many remote learners into the fold as possible. Here are some ways to accomplish this.

Provide Learning Devices

Whether it’s a desktop computer, laptop, or tablet, electronics can be expensive. Therefore, the most significant barrier contributing to the digital divide is the cost of, and access to, electronic learning devices.
Many school districts and libraries allow students to check out electronics like laptops, tablets, and other devices that contain all the software they’ll need. They can also check out mobile hotspots to complete their assignments at home.

Ensure Students Have Reliable Access to the Internet

While getting electronic learning devices into childrens’ hands is essential, they still can’t learn remotely if they don’t have access to the internet.
A student’s lessons can be loaded onto an internal drive, such as a laptop computer, or use flash-based memory for tablets, in some instances to help remedy the situation.
In other circumstances, a student’s family might receive allocations that can help them purchase a low-cost learning device and pay for speedy internet service. Or, some districts have partnered with non-profit groups to lower internet costs and increase the number of households that have adequate speeds, so that they can take full advantage of remote learning.

Making Sure Students Have a Proper Place to Work

To help students maximize their chances of online learning success, they need a calm, quiet environment and a proper place to work. 
Creating an ideal environment at home involves removing all distractions, making sure students have everything they need to work (e.g., a comfortable desk, computer, a pad of paper, and something to write with), good lighting, and study space with an ideal temperature.
Suppose an area like this isn’t available at home. In that case, parents can accompany their children to public spaces like libraries, which often feature small, semi-enclosed desks to maximize privacy and productivity. During the pandemic, many students have been finding both connection and motivation by using virtual study rooms to meet up with their peers for homework time where they can add study music and use timers to help improve their focus. Peer accountability is an important aspect of productivity that has been difficult to achieve this past year.

Creating Virtual Classrooms for Educational Equity

These recommendations aside, children deserve educational equity where they — and everyone else — have an equal opportunity to achieve success in the classroom. Educational equity in the classroom is created through:
  • Fairness: Ensure all children can achieve their academic potential, regardless of their personal and social factors.
  • Inclusion: Requiring all students to meet the same minimum academic standards regardless of where they live, their background, or their personalities.
  • Funding: Ensure teachers and other staff have the resources they need to meet their students’ educational requirements.
  • Academics: Students need to have access to content that fits their educational requirements, help for those who need it, and teachers who are prepared to meet their students’ needs.
Another significant component is for the success of bridging the gap is accessibility.

Prioritizing Accessibility

It’s crucial to prioritize educational access for all students. Districts can accomplish this by providing free resources to students that offer several ways to get their education, including social media options like Discord, as well as studying with their peers and completing online work and exams.
Accessibility is especially important in accommodating students who might not have otherwise had the opportunity to participate in AP exam tutoring without digital and affordable classes, and the AP student community that can be accessed online. AP classes can provide students the opportunity to better prepare for collegiate coursework and save money on college tuition by earning credits while still in high school. 
Prioritizing universal accessibility can help ensure all students have an equal opportunity to both succeed in school and prepare for the next stages of their education.

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