In our December 5, 2017 blog Technology Integration in the Classroom, we noted that “the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found “no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in information and communication technology (ICT) for education.”” And it’s been found that even younger students who have grown up in the digital age may struggle with educational technology.
Now, however, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic that has forced schools from pre-K through university to adopt distance learning measures that are, by nature, technology-dependent. What does this mean in terms of instructional ability and the possibility of effective learning?
One aspect that’s come to the forefront is what’s been dubbed the “digital divide.” Paul Von Hipple, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says “If families differ in their ability to support their children’s learning, especially during an economic crisis, this is when we’re going to see it.”
Clark County, Nevada Superintendent Jesus Jara concurs. He’s found that educators’ efforts initially had to be focused on “simply getting students fed and closing a massive digital divide, as 120,000 students (out of 320,000) do not have the devices or internet access to begin digital remote learning. … When you look at that steep curve, I was shocked. I had expected it, but I was shocked at how steep it was.”
And according to a Washington Post report, “a stunning number of young people are locked out of virtual classes because they lack high-speed Internet service at home. In 2018, nearly 17 million children lived in homes without high-speed Internet, and more than 7 million did not have computers at home, according to a report [prepared by futureready.org].
The issue affects a disproportionately high percentage of Black, Latino and Native American households — with nearly one-third of students lacking high-speed Internet at home. Students in Southern states and in rural communities also were particularly overrepresented. In Mississippi and Arkansas, about 40 percent of students lacked high-speed Internet.”
Though the curriculum at every grade level suffers with the lack of connectivity, emergent readers — those in 1st grade particularly — may suffer the most. Students at this level are learning how to decode — that is, associate the squiggle on the page with the sound that it represents. That often requires intense, hands-on instruction of phonemic awareness and phonics, including forming or manipulating letter shapes, class read-alouds, interactive play, and targeted conversation to learn new vocabulary that builds a working knowledge of the world around them. Without this foundation, they cannot transition from learning to read to reading to learn.
For those that do have the technology to participate fully in remote learning, teachers are working to adapt their instruction for the new medium. “Educational technology is often looked at with skepticism, but for better or worse in this era when there aren’t a lot of other choices … adaptive ed tech might have a place,” says University of Connecticut psychology professor Fumiko Hoeft.
New York City has attempted to reach its emergent reader population through its local public broadcasting channel, which, during the spring, ran hour-long episodes of “Let’s Learn NYC!” every weekday as a supplement to their distance learning program. Tailored for students ages 3-8, the programs included read-alouds and work on foundational reading skills, including phonemic awareness and phonics.
“We are trying to follow what the science of reading tells us as much as possible, given that these are 12- to 14-minute segments,” said Andrew Fletcher, the senior executive director of early literacy at the New York City Department of Education.
Starting in June, the program expanded to two hours each day — one for preschool and kindergarten students, and the other for grades 1-2. While the segments allow for more differentiation, they still can’t match the individualized attention kids receive in a classroom.
But given the dubious nature of technology’s effect in the classroom, can this new incarnation — for those who can access it — prove successful for learning, or will we be leaving a whole generation of learners struggling to catch up to their peers? Teachers, principals, parents: What are your thoughts? Please leave us feedback in the comments section below.
 Sparks, Sarah D. (April 9, 2020). “Academically Speaking, the ‘COVID Slide’ Could Be a Lot Worse Than You Think.” Education Week. Retrieved from https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2020/04/covid_slide_worse_summer_slide_NWEA.html.
 Balingit, Moriah. (August 16, 2020). “‘A national crisis’: As coronavirus forces many schools online this fall, millions of disconnected students are being left behind.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/a-national-crisis-as-coronavirus-forces-many-schools-online-this-fall-millions-of-disconnected-students-are-being-left-behind/2020/08/16/458b04e6-d7f8-11ea-9c3b-dfc394c03988_story.html.
 Schwartz, Sarah. (June 1, 2020). “Early Reading Instruction Takes a Hit During COVID-19.” Education Week. Retrieved from: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/06/01/early-reading-instruction-takes-a-hit-during.html.
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