How Technological Disparities affect a Student’s Journey

I remember him like it was yesterday. My new student arrived, small and shy. His head was down and his dark eyes made the occasional journey upward and stopped to meet mine. He was like a scared new puppy in someone’s arms and would glance around hesitantly as often as his courage would allow. The greeter at my classroom door introduced this young man to me and thankfully, I knew just what to do. I kneeled down and said, “Hola! Yo soy tu maestra. Me llamo Ms. Watts. Como te llamas?” His face broke, and a smile came tumbling out. We were instantly connected. I went on to tell him he was welcomed, and while he may be far from home, a whole new family was his; here in our classroom.

Fast forward to when this sweet, confident newcomer from Guatemala left me for the next chapter of his life; he did so hugging me while weeping. My twenty-one years as and educator provides me with countless student memories such as this. Some situations are cherished, and others bring a variety of emotions. Teachers know of these types of sentiments, and keep their student stories close to their hearts to share at a moments notice. This particular memory from five years ago was delivered to the forefront of my mind after reading articles on disparities across classrooms. I thought of my sixth grade student. I saw his eyes light up that first day when he held his shiny technological device. A new computer; something he had never seen nor touched prior to that moment. Villages in Guatemala offered lessons on perseverance, love, kindness, horticulture, family values and minimalism, but rarely this – the gift of technology. In this new world, he was expected to dive into the rectangle he was holding, and be ready to navigate the roads, detours, and pitfalls it held. All across America students like my own have their stories of “lack” whether with basic needs, skills or opportunities, but in today’s world and current situation, disparities in technology are paramount. Did I know that a couple of years later my student would partake in distance learning and command his own education via a computer? No. Perhaps I would have taught him more. Fortunately our school district had a computer for this young man, and he received training, but this is not the situation for all children across America. A message echoing across the globe during this pandemic is that technology is essential for every student; it is no longer a privilege.

The Department of Education conducted a survey and found that one in four public school students do not have a computer. This inequality became blatantly obvious when orders were given for Americans to shelter in place due to the worldwide pandemic. The article states that sixty-nine public school districts across the country began online distance learning at a moment’s notice. Upon hearing the various state directives, teachers acted. They grabbed items from their classrooms, made calls to parents, secured their own devices and materials, turned in their keys, reviewed video conference platforms, went home and then…waited. The first day of awkwardly reaching through the screen to connect with their students at home will be a day teachers will always remember. Nationwide digital learning will likely capture its place in history books similar to the 1950’s when students dove under desks and covered their heads because of threats of atomic bombs.

One may argue the comparison, but having educators virtually teach an entire nation marks a space in time unlike any other.  Even if students have devices, the disparities are daunting and numbers do not lie. According to the DOE spokesperson Sydni Dunn, 28% of students do not have access to a computer, and only 66% of students have home Internet access. This lack of instant connectivity creates an extra challenge beyond dropping off a device at a student’s home. School districts are working to bridge the gap between the advantages that some students have and others lack.  Even without computers, teachers still make learning happen each day. The article speaks of the flexibility and concern teachers across the country display to their students. With technology absent, teachers still deliver. “Some school systems reported to us they are offering paper packets, review materials from earlier in the year, while some are teaching whole classes or new content via zoom or other online platforms,” said Dunn. America’s teachers do whatever it takes to meet the needs of their students. While they demonstrate commitment, caring and perseverance, a survey found that only 32% of school systems are connecting with students every day. More should be done in America for equity to occur within our new school walls.

Computer disparity is not only felt in America. UNESCO and partners stated in a story that half of all students currently out of the classroom – or nearly 830 million learners globally — do not have access to a computer. Additionally, more than 40 percent have no Internet access at home. It goes on to say that The COVID-19 pandemic has forced school closures in 191 countries, affecting at least 1.5 billion students and 63 million primary and secondary teachers. If devices aren’t available, could students use their cell phones? UNESCO claims that lack of mobile networks affect 56 million students. Phones are not the answer to this inequality. The disparities are stark and countries scramble to create webinars to coalesce ideas, and formulate strategies so students all across the world continue to receive education.

Technology is a tricky thing. It can be a prop or an open highway to a better future. Being a teacher, I know some things. Teachers want more than props and are passionate people about empowering our kids no matter the obstacles. We desire to educate our students to take on the highway of life, rev their engines and burn some tires! Our students need to look back at us in the rear-view mirror, smile, and forever thank us for showing them their possibilities. Teachers want their students to head towards a brighter horizon and navigate around the many potholes they will encounter in life. Can computers provide this open road for the children we are entrusted? While educators continue to ponder this question, the impact will not be known until there is equity, until every child can hold a device in their hands, and efficiently began their journey.

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