Wed | Oct 21, 2020

Editorial | Digital divide and struggles with schooling

Published:Saturday | October 17, 2020 | 12:12 AM

Teachers, students, and parents are treading uncharted waters as they try to navigate a new academic school year marked by remote learning.

It has been a rocky start for many, particularly those in rural Jamaica who do not have the tools to learn remotely. Many young learners are said to be struggling to find their footing.

We truly believe in our teachers’ ability to find creative ways of facing the challenges thrown up by the coronavirus. We have seen time after time the innovative strategies they have devised to overcome resource gaps, the clever ways in which they have hurdled barriers created by shortages, and the agile manner in which they have jumped through hoops to ensure that they deliver to their students.

In the context of the coronavirus, teachers need lots of help to meet the demands of the moment. The Government must quickly figure out how to direct resources to the schools in greatest need. School boards are valued partners in this equation, and they have a major part to play by helping schools gain access to the enormous resources of alumni communities. The Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) needs to be more cooperative in helping to bridge the homeschool learning environment and be part of the solution.

Technology Problems

One of the most pressing problems in the schools is how to get the technology needed to support remote learning. As we write, there is a scramble for tablets and laptops, which students must have for virtual learning. Students on the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education were reportedly promised tablets in November of last year, and many are still waiting.

Did anyone think about the current circumstances and seek a solution to these issues? What happens when classes move online because of the coronavirus? What happens when there is no Internet connectivity in a community?

No one ought to be surprised that rural areas are not well served by the Internet, for there has always existed an urban-rural resource divide. The digital deficiency is more acute in the rural areas where Internet access, if it exists, is spotty at best. By the look of things, improving broadband infrastructure in rural Jamaica does not appear to be a priority of the major Internet providers.

Establishing Wi-Fi Hotspots

For the students who now have no access to the Internet, establishing Wi-Fi hotspots would be a solution. Some of the other remedies could include purchasing cellular data for students and identifying local community areas where there is free Internet access.

We urge the Universal Service Fund to do more to establish community access points where they are needed most. The fund is sitting on a pile of money, and it should do more to help poor children acquire devices, boost bandwidth capacity, and create more hotspots and even home routers where practical.

This pandemic has shown up many inequities – large segments of the population in rural parts of this country remain out of reach of reliable Internet service or hardware, while well-off urban children are given access to devices literally from birth.

Like the economy and health services, education is deeply impacted by the virus. Even with low rates of transmission among children, school closure was implemented to mitigate community spread by fulfilling social-distancing requirements. But our students cannot remain disengaged from the learning process for much longer. Importantly, rural students cannot be held back any further. We should emerge from this pandemic with a vision of education that is more inclusive, more flexible, more responsive, and, above all, more meaningful.