Making the All-Online Transition Across the Digital Divide

by Diane Klein

Most of us wouldn't teach a class that required note-taking with pen and paper, if we knew in advance that many of our students didn't have those things.  But that's exactly what we are doing with the all-online transition in America's schools in response to the coronavirus crisis.  For students who fall on the wrong side of the "digital divide," it won't matter how good a job faculty do trying to overcome all the challenges inherent to delivering effective instruction online in the weeks and months to come.  They'll miss out all the same.

Many university administrations have decided over the past week or so to make an accelerated and total transition to online instruction.  That includes nearly every law school in the country (186 and counting, up to 190 as of Monday, March 16, and at 100%, all 199, as of March 18, 2020), and huge swaths of K-12 school systems as well.  The great distance education experiment has begun at the post-secondary level, against a set of background assumptions about college and graduate student resources and life circumstances that may not be at all accurate.  Decisions made based on these unexamined assumptions threaten to exacerbate preexisting educational inequality in deeply problematic ways, that often run counter to university missions and the needs of the students they purport to serve.

Students without reliable affordable highspeed broadband access at home  - what Prof. Julia Leslie calls a "learnable living setup" - cannot participate on equal terms in an educational program delivered entirely online to students living off-campus during a time of near-quarantine.  It is that simple.  Students whose only internet access is through a smartphone, often with a restrictive data limit; students who live in (rural) places without high-speed broadband for miles around; students who are facing housing/food insecurity without a quiet room of their own they can work in for hours on end - these are the students who will be left behind as our educational programs go all-online.

We already know that on-campus life is far from a great equalizer.  Students whose families can pay retail tuition, drive fancy cars, buy all their books brand-new, and take fancy vacations over spring break and Christmas, are obviously having a vastly different experience from those going deeply into debt and working while in school.  We have only begun to recognize and understand the situation of those for whom a dorm and dining hall may provide greater housing and food security than they otherwise experience.  But at least while on campus, the "digital divide" is likelier to be something students study than something they experience.  Now that we have banished our students from college (and law school) campuses, in many cases on almost no notice at all, and demanded that they do all of their coursework online, that will change dramatically.

How many students are we talking about?  Lots.  The digital divide in America takes two forms, both of which are important at the current moment and for all education, from K-12 through graduate programs.

The first has to do with race/ethnicity.  As of 2020, approximately one in three Black and Hispanic Americans don't have access to computer technology at home; and similar fractions do not have broadband.  This is more than 30 million people.

The second underserved group are those who live in predominantly white rural areas.  The FCC reported that more than a quarter of rural residents do not have access to high-speed (25 mbps or better) broadband; an industry group, the Fiber Broadband Association, estimates that 19 million Americans fall into that category - including both teachers and students.

Even in urban and suburban areas with near-universal access, fees of $50 to over $100 per month for such service puts it out of reach for many.  Faculty who blithely think they can simply "poll" their students to assess whether they have adequate technology (hardware, software, and data) may not appreciate that this requires students in difficult circumstances to "out" themselves - or to make further sacrifices to acquire these unannounced new course requirements, while also facing unexpected expenses of relocation.

So what does this mean? It means that a university decision to go all-online not only creates real challenges for faculty inexperienced at delivering courses this way (as I discussed here), it creates anxiety, uncertainty, and serious inequities among the student body.  Making matters worse, the elaborate bells and whistles that give online education the potential to be highly effective - real-time videoconferencing, streaming downloads, chat rooms - may overtax the capacities and/or data plans of many of our students.  Some will watch at home with computers hooked up to giant monitors or flatscreens; others may be parked in a drugstore parking lot while the battery runs down on a phone with a cracked screen.  Sound fair?  Some will write papers at home with unlimited research access, on a desk in a quiet bedroom, with someone else making breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Others will try to write a term paper (or a law review note) on a phone.

These problems are made substantially worse by requirements of "synchronous" online instruction, meaning real-time online classes that take place during the same timeslot as the face-to-face (F2F) class.  Some university administrations have mandated or strongly encouraged this, either because their accreditation does not cover asynchronous online instruction; because they fear faculty members will "slack off" if not required to put in the precise number of "contact hours" the pre-coronavirus schedule required; or would hold live classes at potentially conflicting times.  Some faculty may prefer this approach even if it is not required, because they prefer to keep their own schedule as familiar as possible.

Whatever the reason, the first problem with synchronous instruction results from the fact that many students are now in different time zones than their schools.  That 9am class in California starts at noon for the student who has returned to the East Coast, and is a late afternoon or evening class in Europe.  (Then consider India or China.) That 6:30pm-9:30pm evening class in San Francisco runs until after midnight in New York.  That 8am class at NYU starts at 5am for the student in California, and at 2am for the student in Hawaii.  You can do the math.  But, it appears, many administrations cannot.

For students whose best internet access is not at home, the time zone problem is even worse.  If a student is using a Starbucks or a public library or community center for internet access, classes may be meeting at a time when those facilities are closed (if they are not already closed for the duration).  That's how you end up going to class in a parking lot.

While administrations may have thought they were being deliberate or judicious by waiting as long as possible to make the decision to go all-online, consider the situation of a student who left campus for spring break, or is leaving the next morning, when they receive an announcement that as of Monday, their school is going all-online, and they have to be out of their dorms in just a few days.  I know a number of parents who not only bought tickets home on short notice for college students, but also bought round-trip tickets for themselves to go help their student pack up and leave.  In an institution serving a student body whose parents cannot afford to do that, how is this supposed to work?

Learning early one week that your school "might" go online for a few weeks, and then finding out just days later that no further face-to-face classes will happen for the semester, is both a psychological trauma and an educational earthquake. These students have not only lost their internet access.  They have effectively been evicted, with nearly no notice at all, and cut off from reliable meals, friends, and the social and academic support networks they have been relying on. Students who struggle with these issues are likely, at best, to underperform in the all-online environment, and at worst, to fail out, drop out, or not complete programs for which they may have taken on substantial debt.

The demand for prompt, decisive action to slow the spread of the coronavirus is indisputable, medically and scientifically.  If this means the cessation of face-to-face instruction and the closure of dorms and dining halls, so be it.  But in universities' haste to make this transition happen apparently "seamlessly," they have failed to take account of the ways that the all-online transition will not only make the worst-off students still worse off in absolute terms (which is probably true of all students), but of the ways it will also make them worse off in relative terms.  As currently being undertaken, the all-online transition seems likely to increase problems of inequality and unequal access that are already acute in American education.  This can and should be ameliorated to the maximum degree possible, and doing so needs to be a much higher priority than it currently appears to be.  The all-online transition is a significant financial hardship that schools need to act to ameliorate, immediately.  For example, for students who live more than 100 miles from campus, student belongings should be packed and shipped to students at no cost to them; or at the very least, packed and stored for some period of time, at no cost. Faculty need to be given instructional options that do not discriminate against students with limited internet access.  The real needs of real students need to be prioritized over the university's desire to continue "business as usual" - but somehow, online.

The all-online transition may be the best - or even the only - solution to an acute and urgent public health crisis: the need to prevent or limit the spread of coronavirus.  But even those who don't fall ill will fall significantly behind their fellow students if schools do not do everything they can to insure that the educational and financial costs of this transition are not suffered disproportionately by those least able to bear it.  Equal educational opportunity need not be another casualty of the coronavirus.