The onset of the pandemic brought the digital divide into clear focus. Suddenly, millions of learners were out of the classroom and needed to find a way to learn remotely.
The tireless and creative efforts of educators and partners provided Wi-Fi and put devices in the hands of millions of students. However, at the beginning of the 2020–2021 school year, 4.4 million households with students still lacked consistent access to a computer, and 3.7 million lacked reliable internet access, with 40 percent of low-income students in Grades K–12 lacking reliable internet at home (USA Facts; Gao & Hayes, 2021).
Of these learners, Black, Latino, and Native Americans made up about 55 percent of disconnected students, and about 50 percent of disconnected students came from families with annual incomes of less than $50,000 (BCG & Common Sense Media). Furthermore, learners who were most impacted by the digital divide when the pandemic erupted in spring 2020 were also most likely to still be remote during the 2020–2021 school year (Harris & Oliver, 2021; Rome & Cançado, 2021).
Understanding the Impact of the Digital Divide
Access to tools, family resources, and independent student and caregiver skills with technology has become one of the many inhibitors of student learning. At-home access to digital tools and skills became the dividing line between those who continued to have access to a semblance of classroom learning and those for whom schooling essentially stopped.
Educators fully understand the challenges of distance schooling and the struggle to keep learners engaged remotely. No doubt, you’ve heard stories of learners who couldn’t log on or submit assignments—many were essentially absent for months at a time.
To understand the real impact of the digital divide in the context of mass remote learning, we recently released Revisiting the Digital Divide: Digital Learning during the Pandemic, which measures the impact of the digital divide based on more than 3.5 million learners who used the i-Ready digital learning platform across three academic years.
This study directly measures the digital divide by looking at how often students logged in to the digital platform and how much time they spent using it over the course of three academic years: both before and during the pandemic. The study finds that students who returned to the classroom earlier in the year, as determined by their self-reported i-Ready Diagnostic testing location, used i-Ready more consistently and for more time than students who stayed remote for longer.
As our previous reports on pandemic learning have found, traditionally marginalized students have been more deeply affected by these circumstances than students from majority White and higher-income communities.
Key Findings from the Report
Download our latest report or simply review these key findings:
- From March 2020, when schools closed due to the pandemic, weekly usage rates of i-Ready Personalized Instruction dropped below 2018–2019 levels. Usage rates stayed below previous school years’ levels throughout the 2020–2021 school year.
- Whether students were in school or remote was the biggest factor driving digital tool usage. Students from all income levels, locales, and racial/ethnic groups showed greater i-Ready usage if they were testing in school compared to out of school.
- The effect of location (i.e., whether in school or remote) was largest for those in low-income communities and cities, and larger for Latino students compared to White students. As these same students were more likely to be remote, the overall impact of the pandemic and school closures on i-Ready usage was largest for students from historically marginalized groups.
Throughout the pandemic, students in urban areas and students of color were more likely to be learning remotely for longer than students living in higher-income suburban neighborhoods and White learners. As such, it follows that these students were more likely to have lower i-Ready usage. This data, yet again, paints an alarming picture of how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted traditionally marginalized and underserved communities.
These findings are a call to education leaders and policy makers to put our investments and energies toward where they are most needed and will be the most impactful in providing equal opportunity to grade-level learning for all students.
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