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Online Education: How Equal is the Playing Field?

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

The 2021 EdTech Landscape

With COVID-19 still ravaging, an underlying division is being exposed within the education system. As students at all levels are continuing in their education tracks, it was found that 67% of American college students are using online learning platforms (Guide2Research) such as Zoom, Google Classroom, Blackboard, and Canvas for distance learning. With the institutional adoption of virtual platforms and other technological advancements in the EdTech industry, do students have an equal playing field in online learning?

Institutional Commitment

COVID-19 did not create the technological divide, but it did make the world witness educational challenges first-hand. The technical range is even more concentrated on non-white students. According to a study done by EdBuild in 2019, they found that predominantly nonwhite school districts received an average of $23 billion less than mostly white school districts, despite serving roughly the same number of students (Politico). This budget equates to over $2,200 less spent on a nonwhite student than a white student per. That is $23 billion for more laptops, cameras, and WiFi connectivity within minority classrooms. A McKinsey analysis found that 40% of African-American students and 30% of Hispanic students in the United States in K-12 schools received no online instruction during COVID-induced school shutdowns (Brookings). This disparity has been a problem in the educational landscape for generations. Still, now the inequalities are being showcased as parents, teens, and children worldwide are losing jobs and struggling to retrieve essential home and school supplies for their families.

The Non-Technical Side of Online Learning

Beyond internet accessibility and device affordability, a students’ environment where a course is attended, and work is completed impacts students’ ability to learn. Some students are lucky enough to have an office or a desk in, but others now need to use every nook and cranny of their house to find quiet to focus in the virtual classroom. For example, take a student from Long Island with a 4,500 square foot house to find a place to work versus an inner-city student in New York City who has a 900 square foot apartment to complete assignments. Space, compounded with family and roommate dynamics, breeds virtual learning divides that are nontechnical. Considering that both students have parents who are now working from home as their offices or place of work are not letting employees back into their usual office. Removing the physical classroom space is detrimental to millions of students who rely on institutions to provide them with adequate high-speed internet access, hot lunch meals, and good therapy/special educational services (World Economic Forum). These services have now evaporated until students can return to the classroom.

What Comes Next?

While many advancements were made during the COVID-19 pandemic, there need to be future solutions to close the United States’ technological divide. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), it will take an estimated $40 billion to complete most of the broadband gap across the United States, but giving a laptop to every student across the U.S. will not solve the problem overnight. One powerful tool public and private sectors can turn toward is big data. Collecting data and being more informed on how students learn virtually is a critical initiative for institutions to continue to take. More comprehensive access to data will improve future educational products that will address the problems in connecting more students efficiently and accessibility to their learning resources. Within months, we have seen internet access go from a luxury to a necessity. We must continue to better understand gaps in accessibility to education and shifts toward more mobile solutions.


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