Behind the screen

December 18, 2020

All students have had to adapt to virtual learning, but the added challenge of an unstable internet connection prevents some from effectively communicating with their teachers and peers. Since Canvas, AP classroom and other online applications are used to complete schoolwork, reliable internet and technology are essential for online academic success. 

Online school takes place on Zoom, where daily attendance is mandatory. However, features such as screen sharing and breakout sessions can be troublesome to access with a weaker internet connection or a less capable digital device like a Chromebook. For Josh Hurtado ’22, his district-provided Chromebook is not fast enough to support online learning.

“A lot of these Chromebooks that the ICCSD gives us [are] really slow, so if you open a Zoom tab, and if you want to do a Kahoot or something on another one, it will really lag the Zoom meeting,” Hurtado said.

For Pammie Quintero Rodriguez ’23, the dependence on technology during online learning is not ideal.

It’s very challenging to get the grades because I had to work harder than when I was in [person],” Quintero Rodriguez said. “I’m a more paper-pencil type girl, and so it’s very hard for me to use my Chromebook all the time because … I’m not really good at technology.” 

Off-site learning has also affected Quintero Rodriguez’s access to the additional support she usually receives through her Individualized Education Plan. She believes the technological difficulties of the online environment have heightened existing obstacles in her learning experience. 

“If I write things, I get them in my head easier … but it’s kind of hard with the Chromebook because I can’t type fast,” Quintero Rodriguez said. “I had this trouble when I was born because my hands and eyes were not coordinating very well, so that made it hard for me.”

It’s very challenging to get the grades because I had to work harder than when I was in [person].”

— Pammie Quintero Rodriguez '23

In addition to the personal struggles students are facing, online learning’s reliance on a steady internet connection proves challenging, especially for those at a lower socioeconomic status. 

A Pew Research Center analysis found that 35 percent of households with school-age children and an annual income below $30,000 lack high-speed internet access compared to 6 percent of households earning $75,000 or more annually. This internet access gap is especially prevalent in Black and Hispanic families. With online instruction dependent on a steady internet connection, these racial disparities may only exacerbate the education gap.

According to ICCSD academic data, 58.7 percent of Black students and 62.2 percent of Hispanic students enrolled in the online learning model were failing at least one class at midterms during the first trimester, while white and Asian students’ fail rates were 28 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively. 

Virtual learning has proved to be problematic for one Black West High student who wishes to remain anonymous. For this student, the recently published data is not surprising. 

“In my opinion, this [data] is because of our income level. Some may not have access to the internet and can’t attend class … Some may have jobs to support themselves and may not have enough time to study,” the anonymous source said. 

David Bills, a professor of sociology of education at the University of Iowa, echoes these sentiments, saying a family’s socioeconomic status can have a significant impact on a student’s success in the virtual classroom. 

“Social class always has something to do with these things,” Bills said. “There are big differences in the ability of families to provide quiet places for their kids to study and have jobs that are flexible enough to accommodate their kids’ learning.”

The anonymous source has experienced similar challenges. Her younger brother, who has a disability, has struggled to adjust to the online environment. Because of this, the source and her family have modified their schedules to take turns helping him during his classes.

“I think it’s hard for him because he can’t really focus and sit in one place,” she said. “He needs to be doing something hands-on to be engaged.” 

She finds the scheduling arrangement difficult to juggle with her own schooling.

“It’s hard to keep up with lectures because we have to help with his schoolwork, and he is not able to follow along with his teachers and peers,” she said. “We are all stressed out about that, and we have to create schedules to be there with him to go through the material.”

On top of this, the anonymous source’s internet cuts out periodically, further adding to the challenge.

“I could be in a lecture or in the middle of a presentation, and then suddenly I can’t hear anybody correctly or they can’t hear me, and that makes me worry about my grade,” she said.

Bills feels a strong internet connection and access to other necessary resources is imperative for a student’s academic success.

“[Unreliable internet has] almost certainly a great effect,” Bills said. “To the extent that Black and Hispanic students and families are disproportionately subject to poverty, they’re going to suffer more in situations like we’re currently experiencing.”

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