Bridging the education connectivity gap caused by the coronavirus pandemic is an important step in providing emergency remote instruction and ultimately true online teaching. In the US alone over 124,000 public and private schools have been closed and at least 55.1 million students affected. Education for these students continues remotely.
All educators were sent reeling when the full magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic hit and students could no longer attend classes in person. Every industry has been disrupted, but especially those that heretofore involved working or studying closely together in person. From afar, it might seem like schools should be able to quickly and easily switch from in-classroom teaching to online teaching. After all, isn’t online teaching as old as the Internet?
Indeed an early concept of distance learning goes back to the beginning of the U.S. Postal Service in the mid-19th century. But the adoption of online learning techniques has varied tremendously across online-only schools, colleges, high schools, and importantly, primary schools. Many colleges have mastered online teaching, complete with interactive and collaborative sessions, and as a result have expanded their virtual campuses and revenue base. But, for schools whose primary or only form of instruction has been within the classroom and the school building, the situation is much more challenging: requiring dramatic changes in both student and teacher connectivity, as well as replacing classroom-based pedagogy with effective online, remote learning.
Primary and secondary educators have been introducing concepts of remote learning as the flipped classroom and personalized learning methodologies have grown. The idea of the flipped classroom is that the students absorb lesson content via video and other remotely-transmitted media, often viewed outside of the classroom. In-class time is spent with the teacher personally and interactively assessing and reinforcing the learned concepts with each student. In practice, the streamed media lessons can be watched either in school or at home, with high-speed broadband connection to the Internet highly desirable, but not mandatory.
COVID-19 has now eliminated the in-school student-teacher interaction and assessment, so the classroom is no longer merely flipped, it is 100% remote. From a technology standpoint, this requires that all students have devices, such as Chromebooks at home, as well as a Wi-Fi connection that ultimately provides them with a high speed link to the Internet and the school. That network connection must provide security, safety, and privacy for the students and teachers.
Providing the devices and connectivity to students and teachers is neither simple nor without cost, but is still far easier than adapting the curriculum and implementing the pedagogy for effective online teaching and learning. Many school districts are massively distributing Chromebooks, including 20,000 at Boston Public Schools and 37,000 at Chicago Public Schools, but other schools are finding that spare inventories of Chromebooks are as scarce as toilet paper.
Connecting student devices to the Internet is still a challenge across the country. In California, 78% of urban households are subscribed to an Internet service, but that’s true for only 30% of rural households. Overall, 20% of all California students do not have a means to get on the Internet at home. The lack of broadband availability for 21.3 million people is something the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would like to address through a future enhancement to the E-rate program. To further encourage the FCC to solve the homework gap, especially during the COVID-19 shutdown, a group of Democratic and Independent lawmakers are urging the use funds earmarked for education to immediately help kids who lack Internet connectivity. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a proponent of closing the homework gap, is advancing this well-articulated plan of action. In the meantime, the FCC has already taken action to extend E-Rate filing deadlines and suspend gift rules to make it easier for schools to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another approach suggested by the Brookings Institution is to provide student Wi-Fi via school buses. In the US there are approximately 480,000 school buses that normally transport about 25 million students on a weekly basis to school and back. With newly installed Wi-Fi hotspots, these buses can maintain the integrity of current social distancing.
Wi-Fi can also be directed to school parking lots and temporary pop-up facilities designed to accommodate appropriate social distancing. Extreme Networks provides a solution that extends the school’s network security and privacy to outdoor and temporary pop-up spaces. By extending the school network, installed web filters continue to ensure student safety and compliance with the US CIPA regulations.
Faculty and administration can use a portable branch kit to insure a safe and secure network connection at their homes. These kits provide a simple, cloud-managed network that can be deployed over a broad range of connectivity options including broadband, cellular, and private WAN.
Implementing rigorous, carefully-planned online teaching and learning for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic is a far more difficult challenge. It requires significant changes in pedagogical practice, knowledge of and facility with digital tools, and new thoughtfully-designed courses that include new content, activities, and assessments tuned for an online environment.
At the higher education level, the challenges of online education have already been met to the degree that it is no longer flagged as a Top 10 IT Issue by EDUCAUSE, as it once was. But the same is not true for primary and secondary education.
A whole different approach takes into account two important considerations. First, creating a quality online course can take over a year of development and collaboration. Second, your class may not be the highest priority in either your life or your students’ lives right now. Avoiding panic-gogy is the theme of this story from NPR. To this end, many schools are providing remote connections, but offering the option to take courses as pass/fail.
Here are resources to help schools meet the challenges of online teaching and learning in the emergency situation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.