METRC Assistant Director and Digital Durham Founder Laura B. Fogle: Addressing the Homework Gap, Digital Divide During Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak

NC State College of Education Assistant Director Laura B. Fogle

As school districts in North Carolina and around the nation pivot to online learning amid school closures caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, educators and organizations are also having to serve those who don’t have reliable access to the internet.

Providing Support During COVID-19

The NC State College of Education is committed to supporting educators, students and parents as they teach and learn remotely during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. To help with this, we have created a page dedicated to providing tips and resources to ease the transition to at-home learning

In North Carolina, estimates suggest that as many as half a million students are impacted by the “homework gap,” meaning they do not have the ability to complete online assignments because they either don’t have a computer or don’t have internet access at home.

Laura B. Fogle, assistant director of the NC State College of Education’s Media and Education Technology Resource Center (METRC), says that the order to close all North Carolina public schools until at least May 15 to combat the spread of the coronavirus has left schools scrambling to find a way to educate all students.

“There are some school systems that are deciding that they can’t provide online instruction because the equity issues are so big,” she said. “They’re really struggling with those decisions about how to move forward knowing that if instruction is moved online, a significant number of students will be left behind.”

Creating Equity in Online Learning

Although there are some students who will be unable to access online education during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Laura Fogle has some recommendations for creating a learning environment that can serve most students: 

  • Take a phased approach to moving to online instruction, beginning with developing online content as well as offline alternatives.
  • When possible, work to identify where and how large the homework gaps in your school district are in an attempt to find solutions to bringing devices and internet access to those students.
  • When planning online instruction, consider tools that are familiar to both the teacher and students to make the learning process easier. 
  • Take into consideration whether or not students will have the bandwidth access to use more complex tools, like video conferencing or virtual reality simulations, when planning lessons.
  • Understand that younger children will need help from parents, who may or may not have the digital literacy skills to navigate an online learning environment or who are working during traditional school hours.

Fogle helped found Digital Durham, a group of librarians, technology refurbishers, public school representatives and others who meet monthly to share best practices, collect data and help community leaders understand issues related to digital equity.

In an ideal situation, Fogle said, schools would be able to identify which students do and do not have access to online learning opportunities, and find alternative ways to reach them. That process would involve phone calls to the home of every enrolled student, though that may be labor intensive.

She advises that schools take a phased approach to developing at-home learning that meets the needs for all students. For example, schools could create online lessons as well as offline alternatives like hard copy packets while administrators attempt to identify where gaps in internet access exist among their school’s population.

When developing online learning, Fogle also recommends that teachers consider tools that both they and their students are familiar with and that the majority of students will have the bandwidth to use properly under the increasing strain being placed on internet usage.

“You really have to prioritize what your educational objectives are and then weigh your delivery methods with your objectives in mind. Teachers also need to consider the burden of learning and what the ability to support a technology medium is going to be for the students and even for the parents too,” she said.

Fogle noted that school districts will need to understand that even when children are given access to the internet, younger students may be hindered by their parents’ ability to help them navigate a digital landscape. In families who have never used a computer before, parents may not have the digital literacy skills to help students log onto Zoom or use tools like VoiceThread.

In addition, many young students who cannot log on to access their assignments independently may not even have a parent who can help them during traditional school hours, as adults work remotely or go to work at essential businesses that remain open during the pandemic.

“People who are impacted by the homework gap the most are also the people who may still have to go to their minimum wage job,” Fogle said. “They may also be the people who can’t work anymore, so now they don’t have income either. They don’t have a job, the only way for their child to continue to progress in their education is if they’re paying for internet and they don’t even know if they’ll have money to pay for food.”

Even with those considerations, Fogle believes the homework gap will be amplified in ways that haven’t been seen before as schools rapidly pivot to online learning models.

For example, the homework gap traditionally referred to students who didn’t have any device with internet access. Now, there are families who may have an internet connection and computer, but the number of people in the home outnumber the available devices.

While this may have been a workable model under typical circumstances, when children only had an hour or two of online homework and could take turns, it becomes an issue when the entirety of the school day is moved online.

“Now you have families where, if there is one computer in the home but both of the parents and two kids are all home, everyone is competing for that one device,” Fogle said. “How do you provide some sustainable, meaningful, quality instructional content to those two kids when the parents need to be using the device too?”

Fogle said that many organizations have stepped up in recent weeks to help address a lack of devices in North Carolina homes. Kramden Institute, a nonprofit located in Research Triangle Park that Fogle has worked with through Digital Durham, gave out 75 computers per day to families in need until their supply ran out. Lenovo also coordinated with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to distribute computers, giving out 500 devices in Durham alone, Fogle said.

In addition, several internet providers are offering free accounts for 60 days to families with K-12 students who demonstrate financial need and many cell phone providers have removed data caps to allow subscribers to use their phone as a mobile hotspot.

“I’m so encouraged by the way that our community has responded, but I also know how big the gap is and that, as big as our response has been, there are still people who are going to be on the other side of the gap. There will be kids who aren’t going to have an opportunity to connect to their teacher in Google Classroom or see their teacher face-to-face through Zoom because they just don’t have the access or equipment,” Fogle said.

Although school districts are currently focused on how they will immediately deliver education to children across North Carolina, Fogle said that she hopes that this move to online education will help motivate the development of long-term solutions to the homework gap that can be addressed when life returns to normal.

The ability to develop an online learning model that can ultimately be accessed by all students could have wide-reaching opportunities moving forward, she said, allowing schools to offer remote instruction during snow days or for students who are unable to be in a physical classroom for health reasons.

“When we have the time to do it in a methodical way, I hope we’ll take the opportunity to remove this gap after we’ve seen how difficult it’s been for so many families,” Fogle said. “If we had the infrastructure in place for all kids, they would be able to continue to learn and that would really lift up the ability of our educational system to succeed and be more resilient to different issues.”