Ideas for making distance learning more accessible

Writing about public education is not my normal topic. I searched my writings on merchanstand.com from the last 12 years and found only two posts with the word education in the title. Both were related to distance education. So I’ll preface this post with the disclaimer I am not an educator, nor have I received an educator’s training. I am married to a professional educator, which provides me with good information about the local public education system. 

As a technologist, I’m intrigued by some of the challenges public school systems have with creating environments for distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. We have the technology necessary for distance learning, but there are accessibility challenges created by economic disparities across schools even within the same county.  My wife teaches in a school zone that is in a lower-income area of the county. Her largest barrier to providing content and support for distance learning is student accessibility related to income and language. 

Some examples:

  • Families with no computer or tablet in the home for the child to use. For some, the only device they have is a cell phone. This is compounded if the family has multiple children.
  • Families that do not have high-speed internet at home. For some, their data connection is cellular data from their phone plan. 
  • Many of the families have parents that are not fluent in English, creating an additional logistical hurdle for enabling distance learning.

Considering the size of the challenge, our school district has done a great job creating the framework to deliver to content to students. About 180,000 students! But some families need a bridge to help them access the digital content. 

I have some ideas for doable solutions:

* Ask families across the school district to donate unused tablets/computers to those students who don’t have one. Like cell phones, it’s likely many households have tablets or laptops that have been replaced with newer equipment. Unused equipment is often stashed under the bed, in a drawer, or in a closet.

* Ask schools that have already equipped all their students with a computing device to help those schools that have not. Create a grant or designated gift from one PTA to another to buy tablets or Chromebooks. This isn’t typical for sibling-schools within a district but why not? These are unprecedented times and it’s the same concept as supporting a local community non-profit. 

* Have schools extend WiFi zones around the school perimeter to reach the parking lot. Many may already have this while others could be equipped by repositioning or adding a WiFi access point. Create a designated parking area and time of day when parents can park their vehicles while kids do work. For security, give students the security access key via email and set hours when the WiFi will be available. 

* Similar to schools, partner with the local library to extend WiFi zones into parking lots. For security, use a time-based password or library card. 

From a technology perspective, these ideas are easy to implement. From a budgetary perspective, these ideas require little or even no additional investment. The hardest part of implementing ideas like this would be to overcome resistance to change. 

Typically, I would finish my post at this point and declare ‘onward and upward.’ But for this idea, I should note I submitted my ideas to our local school district. Maybe it will call attention to the challenges of economic disparities with distance Learning. I hope it will create a discussion. I offered my time to help implement and of the ideas. Since distance learning may be called upon more in the future we should work to help make it accessible by as many students as possible.

Onward and upward!

Photo credit:https://flic.kr/p/SApdZL – Laptop or Book – by Dejan Krsmanovic via creative commons