Why online learning doesn’t work for the disadvantaged

Since the first dial-up modem blinked to life, the internet has helped shatter information hierarchies the world over.

Schools are no exception.

Free, easy access to online learning in schools has helped educators roll back the have, have-not culture that has for too long plagued America’s poorest classrooms.

But there’s a catch, as a brilliant new article in the Atlantic points out. While access to educational technology has done its part to eradicate long-held inequalities in the classroom, the advantages of online learning do not always extend beyond the school building to homes, where they can ostensibly do the most good.

Perhaps even more frustrating, it isn’t a lack of access that’s often the problem.

Instead, researchers point to a lack of “digital readiness” among disadvantaged families as the main roadblock to widespread student adoption of online learning inside and outside of school.

As online resources become a more familiar ingredient of classroom and take-home work, educators must do their part to ensure students and families have both the technology and the digital know-how needed to excel.

Are they ready? Get them ready.
“The data show that there are real barriers to drawing people to use digital resources for learning,” John Horrigan of the Pew Research Center told the Atlantic.

Horrigan is the lead author of the Pew study that first introduced the concept “digital readiness.”

The study found that more than half of Americans with internet access still aren’t equipped to use the internet for learning. Not surprisingly, the study found that the unready majority consisted primarily of disadvantaged populations, including minorities, women, and low-income households.

When it came to online learning, these groups often lacked key digital skills and confidence in their ability to find accurate, trustworthy information online.

Parents are key
We often think of K12 students as being digitally savvy.

But it’s the digital readiness of parents that often dictates how prepared students are for online learning.

Betsy DiSalvo, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, took a look at low-income families and their interactions with online learning.

DiSalvo found that the challenge of providing for their families precluded a lot of parents from getting more actively involved in their child’s education.

When parents were actively engaged in their child’s education, many simply were not equipped to support or encourage online learning from home.

“Their first priority is getting their kids to do well in school,” DiSalvo told the Atlantic. “They’re so focused on that that they aren’t necessarily focused on looking at what’s fun engagement, or what’s going to spark their interest.”

Supporting parents
To encourage more productive digital learning, our schools have to give parents the skills and confidence to support that learning.

How’s that going to happen?

The Atlantic suggests that makers of online resources and policymakers start by ramping up outreach to low-income families.

What steps does your school or district take to include parents from disadvantaged or low-income households in critical discussions about online learning? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for feedback ahead of your next online learning pilot or programs? Here are three ways to start a conversation about the importance of digital transformation in your schools.

Author: Todd Kominiak

Todd Kominiak is Managing Editor of TrustED.

1 thought on “Why online learning doesn’t work for the disadvantaged”

  1. Low-income families are often early adopters of certain technologies, but their use of those technologies tend to center around communication (like bluetooth headsets) and entertainment (like OTA or internet-based HDTV), and the technologies are often used as substitutes for earlier technologies. Using online resources to open new worlds for our children is only an obvious jump for parents who have previously used other technologies (like libraries, museums, and educational games). Online resources may be a great way of “bringing the world home to you” as the public TV slogan goes, but only if parents use the medium that way, and tune in to that technology’s “channel.”

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