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Education in the Age of COVID: Connectivity is Just the Beginning

A young girl wearing a bright shirt sits in front of a tablet computer and large notepad

By Samantha Schartman-Cycyk

It’s Monday. My alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. and I’m dragging myself to the shower by 6. By 6:30 a.m. my husband and I are luring our first grader out of bed with the smell of eggs and toast. A short reprieve of morning cartoons and breakfast, and then it’s off to school…downstairs in the family room.

These days, I am more grateful than ever to have a home big enough for each member of our small family to have their own space and for our moderately reliable Internet plan. here we live in Ohio, the schools have gone remote due to the Coronavirus. This means my husband who is a teacher, my daughter who is in first grade, and I are all working from home.

When I bemoan the difficulty of juggling full time work, childcare, school support, and housework, I gently remind myself that we are the lucky ones.

Right now, 15% of U.S. households with school-age children do not have a high-speed Internet connection at home. If you have a household with children ages 6 to 17 that makes less than $30,000 per year, this number is roughly one-third (35%) compared with just 6% of such households earning $75,000 or more a year.

Luckily, our family has 100 megabyte (mbps) home Internet service. When I tested our network speed today over WiFi, however, we clocked in at about 53mbps down and 12mbps. By most measures we have pretty decent service and the speed—albeit slower than advertised—is sufficient for streaming. Or is it?

When many schools switched to remote learning in March,  most lessons were assigned as homework and students completed them individually.Now, kids in our school district are in live, online classes with a teacher most of the day. My husband, who teaches art to 600 K–8 students every week, is on camera from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. every day with very few breaks. My daughter starts at 8 a.m. and streams her little heart out until about 3:30 p.m. I am online sporadically throughout the day often until 6 p.m.

This means we have three people in our home that require access to a computer and video-conferencing platform all day every day. The network here is pretty stable but at least one of us drops our connection at least once a day. But what if we couldn’t get back online? If one of our computers broke, our ability to manage our lives would topple. If our Internet service went down, three people would become incapacitated and fall behind. The threat of losing connectivity is terrifying. Our access to the network has become more essential than ever before—being unconnected is not an option.

But what if we lived in rural Montana, where only 69% of the population has access to an average of 20mbps service? The fact is, too many people lack the level of Internet access needed to stream videos or hold a video meeting and too many have no access at all. In the U.S., The Washington Post has called it a “a national crisis” and U.S. lawmakers agree. Currently there are 27 pieces of legislation (27!!!) in Congress that would provide funding to states to improve access and connectivity for residents. Internationally the, U.N. is calling for the implementation of their recommendations on “digital cooperation.”and the President of the European Union has called upon member countries to make this Europe’s Digital Decade.

Access to fast, reliable Internet service is not the only barrier to keeping up with our increasing digitalization (underscored by the pandemic). Many people lack the digital skills to effectively use technology even when it is available to them; and as a number of services have shifted to online-only formats (or heavily prefer it), this barrier can’t be overlooked. Whether it is a senior being directed to engage with a doctor online for the first time or an elementary school child who has not yet learned to read or use a computer being required to sign into and out of classes at different times without the guidance of an adult, this cultural shift is felt more keenly by certain audiences.

In our home, we bit the bullet and hired a part-time nanny to help (something most parents managing remote schooling do not have access to). Our 6-year-old had never used a computer and hasn’t mastered telling time yet, so being able to use and at times troubleshoot issues with a computer while staying on task and getting to classes on time was impossible without adult supervision. But this hasn’t meant smooth sailing. Our young tech-savvy nanny has struggled to upload my daughter’s homework and track her assignments at times—and this is in addition to getting thrown out of the Google Hangout classroom occasionally and struggling to reboot and get back in before the teacher notices! My husband has his own challenges too. He is a hands-on guy; technology is not his strong suit. In order to teach remotely, he’s using a Bluetooth headset and digital document cameras, implementing a new learning management system, and managing Google classroom for hundreds of students with fewer tech skills than his own.

A young girl wearing a bright shirt sits in front of a tablet computer and large notepad

Avalon Cycyk attends school from her desk at home.

I am the resident tech guru in our household and even with advanced technical degrees, I’ve been having trouble. Learning new software and extensions designed to make our online presence more professional and effective has seemingly done more to encourage technical difficulties and confusion. Bottom line? Digital skills matter!

Digital literacy, equipment and connections are now imperative for seeing a doctor, connecting with Grandma in assisted living who is not allowed to have visitors, banking while branches are closed, ordering food and staples online, and yes, ensuring your child is able to attend school. And no, it’s not always as easy as signing up for (and being able to afford) service. You need the equipment (a computer) and the skills to know how to use and navigate all these things; and for many, this is new territory!

The problem is that out of those 27 pieces of legislation in the U.S., only two provide financial support for training. Similarly, while the U.N. lists “Digital Capacity Building” in their roadmap, they also aptly point out how “insufficient investment remains a significant limiting factor.” This is a problem.

As a society, we find it much easier to invest in commodities and businesses than in people. We see robust efforts to fund the deployment of broadband in all its forms through federal initiatives, philanthropy, and public-private partnerships. When I look at the activity around the deployment of technology solutions, I feel hopeful. We have a lot of smart, dedicated people working around the clock to bring connectivity to the next million people—some of whom are connected to the Marconi Society! But I worry that we as an international society will not apply that same vigor to training and empowering these future broadband adopters. I fear that the conversation about addressing the digital divide overwhelmingly centers access to the technology (which makes for a compelling case for funders, legislators, and community practitioners), while overlooking the essential skills and digital literacy required to make effective use of the technology. You cannot provide one without providing the other.

If we hope to truly close the digital divide, we need to be prepared to provide resources that empower and support the people we hope will use and bring future value to the network. Only by matching our efforts to increase connectivity with investment in digital literacy training will we ever achieve the connected world of our dreams.