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EdTech & Design, Equity, Research

E-learning at Home

Has the pandemic exacerbated social inequalities?

Between March and June 2020, our educational systems were subject to surreal circumstances as an unprecedented number of students were kept home from school due to COVID-19. Around the world, more than 2.5 billion learners in more than 190 countries were unable to attend their educational institution at some point during the pandemic. In this context, the Canada Research Chair in Technologies in Education team1 conducted a major Canada-wide study to better understand how students and their parents were coping with homeschooling caused by the pandemic.

A total of 12,279 people took part in this research study: 4,858 parents and 6,421 learners as young as kindergarten. All participants answered an online questionnaire, while some participated in online group interviews.

Fundamentally, this Canada-wide survey led to a better understanding of the challenges families – both parents and learners – faced during this period of unplanned homeschooling. Our study revealed that the experience was vastly different for all families, despite the supporting measures implemented by all provinces and territories. The various difficulties reported by the surveyed families in the study questionnaire and group interviews show how the pandemic further exacerbated existing inequalities, both at school and with regard to the use of digital technology. More concretely, students from the country’s most vulnerable communities appear to have particularly suffered from two of the many challenges families faced during the pandemic: access to digital devices and the Internet; and educational supervision by a parent, which was often impossible due to work demands.

The survey reveals unequivocally that Canadian families are differently equipped, and that parent availability varies greatly. On one hand, this demonstrates how Canadian students are not all equal when it comes to homeschooling. On the other hand, this reveals how the pandemic exacerbated social inequalities that were already present in schools.

Spring 2020: a record number of schools move to remote learning

Even if it has been around since 1873,2 teaching remotely (i.e. when students are not physically present) is not so simple. The motivation to learn is different, as are teacher-student interactions. The issue of isolation takes on a whole other meaning. Teaching and learning remotely means having to learn how to overcome distance. And that distance is multifaceted, comprising space, technology, time, culture, and social and emotional dynamics, along with the educational aspect. To provide a positive experience to teachers and learners alike, while developing long-term skills and learning, all must have access to a digital environment conducive to that end, meaning an appropriate and easy-to-use digital tool, an Internet connection, and the basic usage skills.

Many mistakenly believe that all young Canadians are digital natives and that the digital divide does not exist. This is incorrect. Inequalities between learners in Canada and abroad are very real. As reported by UNESCO (2020), a concerning digital divide is alive and well, especially in Africa, where 82 percent of learners lack Internet access. Here in Canada, as Collin (2020) recently pointed out, these difficulties are now “more tangible than ever, as schools, students and their families are experiencing everything online,” an observation that corroborates the results of our survey.

Digital access: the main challenge?

Some 32 percent of families surveyed say that access to digital devices was a challenge for homeschooling. This proportion is much higher among more vulnerable families. In those households, children either lacked access to a digital device at home or the number of digital devices available was far lower than the number of individuals who needed to use them daily. As one parent explained:

“We only have one computer at home, and three children. Setting up homeschooling is complicated since a computer is needed for everything.”

In this context, initiatives such as Connecting Families,3 which was already established prior to the pandemic and allowed some 500,000 families with school-age children to have access to high-speed Internet at a very low cost, were so much more significant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is heartening to see the various initiatives put in place by all Canadian provinces and territories to allow students to have access to a laptop or tablet, or to have Internet access at home. Various provincial initiatives included equipment purchases or loans for low-income families, grants to allow students to purchase equipment, special subsidies providing families with Internet access, distribution of Internet-enabled smart phones, and the mailing of learning packages to families. However, students from vulnerable families did not have access to such tools as quickly as others. And while these unprecedented investments in digital devices for students across Canada help in bridging the digital divide, there remains the issue of ensuring that these students and their teachers have the skills required to use them. It appears that few provinces or territories have addressed this matter. However, the research on digital technology has been unequivocal on this for many years: simply providing digital devices is not enough (OECD, 2015). Recipients of such devices must know how to use them. Providing devices to a number of low-income families does not mean we are erasing the digital divide. As noted by Collin (2020), “Even with the same equipment, digital inequalities will manifest themselves in terms of uses and skills.” The key for the successful integration of digital technology in education lies in three essential and complementary steps: providing the right equipment to learners and their teachers; providing them with Internet access; and ensuring they are trained for educational purposes (both teachers and learners).

These three steps are essential not only to bridge digital inequalities, but also, more broadly, to ensure the successful integration of digital technology in education for all students. It is also fundamental not to undervalue a successful integration of digital technology in education: teachers and learners need to be trained in the educational uses of digital technology as well as in how to carry out remote teaching under the current circumstances. Little attention has been devoted to the training of teachers and learners, a shortcoming that provinces and territories should urgently address. This is all the more important if the millions of dollars invested in purchasing computers, tablets and smart phones are to be used not only to overcome social inequalities related to access to digital technology, but to actually contribute to the educational and academic success of all learners.

To that end, our team developed an information sheet, titled 80 pistes pour faire l’école à la maison (Karsenti, 2020), that provides teachers and learners who have little remote education experience a series of research-backed strategies to help them with e-learning. The purpose of this document is to help education stakeholders to quickly take stock of several pedagogical aspects of homeschooling, without having to improvise.

Homeschooling and working parents

Another sizable challenge many parents had to face – particularly parents from lower-income households – was having to balance their children’s homeschooling with their own job. Of the parents who answered the survey, 82 percent of them said they continued working full-time during the pandemic; while some of them worked from home, the majority worked outside the home. Mainly because of lack of availability, 60 percent of students said they were only “more or less” supported by their parents with their schoolwork during the pandemic.

“I’m doing this on a full-time basis and I’m struggling to do it all.”

– parent of a student

When parents were required to work from home and students had to learn online, many families had to deal with new work-life balance challenges, as the home became the primary location for both learning and working. In that respect, the results and comments show that balancing homeschooling and working from home is a headache for many:

“I’m working from home and I’m alone with the kids Monday to Friday, while trying to manage it all.”

“It was very difficult to help them with their schoolwork while I was working. It felt like I was failing at everything.”

Beyond the issue of time, related to the fact that parents had to work, many other parents did not feel like they had the pedagogical skills to help their children:

“The challenge for me is my pedagogical skills… I am definitely not a good teacher!”

Once again, this sentiment is further compounded among vulnerable households, especially those where the parents’ level of education does not always allow them to help children with their schoolwork.

 

THIS STUDY, conducted under exceptional educational circumstances, demonstrates how the pandemic-related homeschooling experience has not been the same for all families, despite the many measures implemented across Canada. The 12,279 parents and learners surveyed explained how this health crisis amplified inequalities in knowledge, learning, and digital technology. Students from the country’s underprivileged families, in particular, encountered difficulties related to access to the Internet and digital devices, in addition to being less able to rely on educational supervision from a parent. It is clear that students in Canada are not all equal when it comes to remote learning, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated existing social inequalities. Action is urgently needed to find solutions to allow all students equal opportunity to learn, both at school and at home.

Photo: Adobe Stock

Notes

1 See: http://karsenti.ca/chaire

2 In the various adult education initiatives implemented in the U.S. in the late 19th century, many, like Watkins (1991), see the beginnings of remote learning, which preceded those developed later on by universities. For example, in 1873, a women’s association in the Boston area set up a home-schooling initiative that, over the years, involved some 10,000 participants (see Karsenti, 2013).

3 The Connecting Families initiative, in partnership with Internet service providers (ISPs), enables eligible Canadian families to access high-speed Internet service packages for $10 per month. See:  https://www.connecting-families.ca

 

REFERENCES

Collin, S. (2020, August 31). Il est plus que temps de prendre au sérieux les inégalités numériques et scolaires. The Conversation.

https://theconversation.com/il-est-plus-que-temps-de-prendre-au-serieux-les-inegalites-numeriques-et-scolaires-140602

Karsenti, T. (2013). MOOC: What the research says. International Review of Technology in Higher Education, 10(2), 23–37.

Karsenti, T., & Parent, S. (2020). 80 pistes pour faire l’école à la maison. CRIFPE. http://karsenti.ca/80pistes.pdf

UNESCO (2020). COVID-19: A global crisis for teaching and learning. UNESCO.

OECD (2015). Connectés pour apprendre : les élèves et les nouvelles technologies. PISA.

Meet the Expert(s)

Thierry Karsenti

Chaire de recherche du Canada sur le numérique en éducation, Université de Montréal

Thierry Karsenti, Ph.D., est titulaire de la Chaire de recherche du Canada sur le numérique en éducation, Université de Montréal.

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