Why Computer Literacy Matters During The Covid-19 PandemicOctober 11, 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the nation, more and more school districts are continuing remote learning into the fall. Even those that are reopening are also planning for the need to close again if an outbreak occurs. As a result, districts are racing to get technology and internet access to students who do not currently have those resources. Providing computers and hotspots is just step one in closing the digital divide, however. Schools will also need to address disparities in computer literacy, so that students who are unaccustomed to using computers regularly are not left behind.
A recent study from the Alliance for Excellent Education found that nationwide, 16.9 million students do not have home internet or a computer. Students of color, students from families with low incomes, and students in rural locations are far likelier than their peers to lack these essential resources. Even if schools are able to provide computers and internet, these students will be operating at lower levels of computer literacy than students who use computers regularly. Without directly addressing this additional barrier, the opportunity gap between these students and their white and wealthier peers will continue to grow.
There is clear evidence that remote learning is detrimental for students across the board, but for students with low computer literacy, it could be disastrous. Before the pandemic forced schools to close, many students were not regularly using computers as part of their school work. In 2018, only 56 percent of U.S. eighth grade students reported completing worksheets or exercises using information and communications technology at least once a week. Furthermore, only 30 percent reported using this technology to work online with other students at least once a week; 40 percent reported using it to organize their time and work; 41 percent to prepare reports or essays; and 43 percent to take tests.
Results from the International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) show that U.S. eighth grade students with two or more computers at home performed better in both computer and information literacy and computational thinking than their peers with fewer home computers. White and Asian students also had higher average scores in both these areas than Black, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native students, and students of two or more races. There were also similar differences based on school poverty levels and student socioeconomic status.
With the majority of students likely to experience remote learning at some point this school year, these inequities in both access and outcomes are very concerning, and districts and schools will need to provide resources to help students catch up. Districts should start by conducting surveys of their students to identify those without access to computers or internet to provide them with resources. From there, they should be able to determine which students will need additional supports, but they should also reach out to students who struggled with remote learning in the spring and allow students and families to self-identify as needing additional help.
Teachers will need significant professional development and training opportunities to learn not just how to teach remotely effectively, but also how to assist students learning remotely who may not have used these platforms and technologies before. Schools should also consider extending these opportunities to parents and community members, so that students can have more direct support at home. These students should also have opportunities for extra support and learning time where they can focus on working with the technology. This may be accomplished with teacher “office hours,” sessions with school-provided tutors, and communications with school-appointed technology liaisons. For schools that are able to partially reopen, teachers should consider using in-person instruction time to incorporate technology into lessons and work with students to make them more comfortable using it in the event that they have to switch to remote instruction.
One school district that is taking many of these steps as they reopen remotely this fall is Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) in Arizona. TUSD will be providing every student with a device and will be using their Online Instruction model whether they are teaching remotely or in-person, in order to give all students equal access to the same content. The district is also providing students with additional learning resources, such as optional online recorded lessons, as well as in-school learning spaces for students who are unable to work remotely from home. Remote instruction will include weekly benchmark assessments to inform teacher-driven small group intervention sessions, breakout room/small group instruction sessions for all students, and access to extracurricular/extended day programs and additional academic supports. TUSD teachers will have weekly virtual office hours to connect with students and families and are recommended to have bi-weekly scheduled appointments to check in with students and families on progress monitoring. Teachers will also receive two hours of professional development and cross-collaboration opportunities every week to support instructional delivery and will build in one hour of planning to their schedules every day. Each TUSD region will also have dedicated technology and instruction support officers.
To be clear, this is not a problem that will be fixed overnight. Currently, most districts and schools are working just to give students access to devices and internet in the first place, and they cannot address the computer literacy gap until students have these resources. Schools will need significant federal relief funds to purchase technology and provide training. As schools continue to adapt throughout the next school year, they must remember that not all students have had the same access to computers and other technology in the past.
While coronavirus and remote learning has made computer literacy a much more pressing issue, it is one that is not likely to go away with the virus. As technology becomes more prevalent in the classroom and society, we must make sure that all students have equitable access and training, not just so that they are able to learn and complete their assignments, but also so that they are prepared for a workforce in which comfort with technology is a growing necessity.