The COVID-19 pandemic and the push to virtual learning has highlighted existing inequities in access to technology and connectivity, as well as underlined cybersecurity gaps in education.
The COVID-19 pandemic and school closures that have come as a result have pushed educators and policymakers to rethink the role of technology in public school districts across the country.
As many districts grapple with how to implement remote and hybrid learning models, concerns about digital equity and cybersecurity have been pushed to the forefront, according to Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a professional association for education technology leaders across the nation.
Krueger said the pandemic has catalyzed ongoing discussions about how to modernize public education.
“This is going to spur a lot of innovation. It’s changed expectations of teachers, it’s changed expectations of parents and it’s changed expectations of students,” Krueger said. “That’s going to have implications for how learning happens.”
On Jan. 28, the consortium will release its Driving K-12 Innovation 2021 Hurdles and Accelerators report to provide a glimpse into the many challenges facing education technology. Expanding Internet access and strengthening digital security infrastructure are among the key goals moving forward.
A 2019 Pew Research Center survey showed that approximately 63 percent of rural adults have a home broadband connection compared to 75 percent of urban and 79 percent of suburban adults. The Future Ready Schools initiative also reports that nearly 40 percent of Americans living in rural areas lack high-speed home Internet, while 14 percent do not have a computer at all.
Krueger believes federal policymakers should consider additional emergency funding to connect more students and teachers through broadband. He said they should consider at least $6 billion in funding through the federal E-rate program to help address digital equity in 2021.
Digital equity has been a concern of educators for some time now, but the topic was mainly examined in the context of traditional in-person learning.
“Since last March, there’s no question that learning has been happening at home and that for both students and teachers, we need to make sure they have devices,” Krueger said. “But the real hurdle is broadband access. That’s particularly a problem for students in low-income families – disproportionately Black and Hispanic.
“In rural (districts), there simply may not be broadband to very remote and rural communities and homes.”
Jarret Cummings, senior adviser for policy and government relations at EDUCAUSE, said long-existing inequity in broadband access has been magnified during the pandemic.
“The closing of physical campuses during COVID-19 profoundly impacted access to learning and institutional services by students in unserved or underserved communities, which includes both rural and urban areas,” he said. “Expanding and upgrading the nation’s broadband infrastructure while ensuring affordable access to broadband service regardless of location remains essential to closing the digital divide, and closing the digital divide remains vitally important to providing effective, equitable access to post-secondary education moving forward.”
The Center for Education Reform (CER) advocates providing K-12 students with a “virtual backpack,” which would include a device, a hot spot, basic supplies, food and a ticket that gains them access to any public, private or charter school.
CER Founder and CEO Jeanne Allen says equity isn’t just about having a device and Internet access. It’s also about how students are being taught.
“We have to make sure that access comes with a heavy dose of choice because what might work for a young man in the city of Philadelphia may not work for the young lady in rural North Carolina,” she said. “And it may be that neither of their traditional schools are equipped to provide a good digital education.”
Allen said this unprecedented era of virtual learning has forced educators and parents to examine other existing needs for equity in education. Those discussions will likely continue beyond the pandemic.
“The world has changed dramatically, and in many ways, obviously not for the better, but in some ways, the environment we find ourselves in, being so virtual and online all the time, opens up an incredible pathway to equitable access to knowledge in a wholly different way,” she said.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to put it back in the bottle,” she later continued. “I think the changes from COVID have opened up the eyes of parents and people who had no idea the extent of the inequity and dysfunction that existed with traditional education, and it’s empowered them to think differently about how they educate their kids.”
But as the education world increasingly embraces virtual learning, concerns about cybersecurity will remain on digital learning platforms and video conferencing programs commonly used in schools.
CoSN advocates further prioritizing cybersecurity in public schools, which the FBI has identified as the most-targeted public sector for ransomware attacks. The organization recommends more funding for cybersecurity initiatives.
Further, CoSN recommends that lawmakers direct the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director to establish a Cybersecurity Clearinghouse to “disseminate information, best practices and grant opportunities to improve cybersecurity” and a Cybersecurity Registry to track incidents of cyberattacks on elementary and secondary schools.
“K-12 education is considered a soft target by cybercriminals because they’re very understaffed,” Krueger said. “We’re extremely vulnerable there.”
While there are many challenges ahead, Krueger is optimistic about President Joe Biden’s secretary of education nominee, Miguel Cardona. He said Cardona’s experience as Connecticut’s education commissioner and as a principal in Meriden Public Schools could serve him well in tackling these obstacles.
“That school district is very high tech,” he said, adding that Connecticut is ahead of the curve in education technology.
Allen said it could prove difficult for Cardona to have the same kind of impact on the federal level as he had on the state and local level, but he could use his position to advocate for a future stimulus package that includes resources like virtual backpacks.
“I think the good news is that he is very savvy and open to digital innovations, but being supportive and actually working to unleash innovation at the local level are two completely different things,” she noted.
Cummings noted that it’s too early to know how Cardona’s experience will extend to higher education, having a background in K-12 education.
“We’ll have to see who the appointees are for the under secretary of education, the assistant secretary for postsecondary education and the director of the Office of Educational Technology posts before we’ll have a better sense of how this administration’s ed-tech views will extend to higher education,” he said.
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