Bridge the Equity Gap with Digital Learning

By Michelle Miller

Kids living in low-income families experience the greatest risk of learning loss, and on average they spend more of their time using screen media than their higher-income peers. Research shows that digital learning content can increase engagement, teach new skills, encourage creativity and promote social and emotional well-being. 

As the majority of the nation’s schools remain closed for in-person instruction and more than three million students are given remote learning devices, our country faces an urgent need and an unprecedented opportunity.  

How can digital content help vulnerable kids who are learning at home? We convened a three-part Games and Learning Summit with leading funders, researchers, content providers and outreach organizations who are developing, delivering and supporting high-quality digital learning content during this watershed moment. The following takeaways from those discussions offer a step towards better serving low-income students with high-quality digital learning tools. 

1. Distribute free tools to low-income communities.

According to our research, districts have already distributed more than three million digital learning devices to kids in need. Work remains, however, to make sure every student has access to both a device and to relevant, high-quality content.

The nonprofit First Book represents a network of nearly half a million educators who serve kids in need. In a recent survey, First Book educators reported that 37% of their students do not have functioning devices and 57% do not have someone available to provide tech support at home. Nearly one-quarter of those educators said they cannot share digital learning resources with their students because they lack funding.

Many digital learning content providers attempted to meet this challenge by providing free access to both schools and families through the end of the summer. Tinkercast, producer of the popular Wow in the World podcast, built on its “buy one, give one” offer to provide free access directly to First Book educators. The reading intervention platform BookNook continued its equity-based pricing model, with no added fees for Spanish content. Caribu, a family-oriented video-calling app, partnered with nonprofit reading and mentoring organizations to help direct heavily discounted access to families in need. The company also launched a new web-based version that works on laptops and Chromebooks, the devices most commonly distributed by school districts.

These efforts have improved access for thousands of students, however the hard costs of providing new web-based versions, discounted pricing and improved support for families is straining the already short runways of most digital learning companies. “The digital learning space is filled with brilliant but separate players who want to succeed and to make a difference in equity for the underserved,” Jane Robinson from First Book commented. “I think we all need to have the broad outlines of a smart ecosystem, a systemic solution in mind (even if it seems wildly out of reach), or we won’t be able to pull all of the players together.” 

2. Improve school, parent and community readiness.

Recent surveys with parents, teachers and students reflect the growing appetite for digital learning tools and the struggle to effectively implement them. 

According to a recent NewSchools Venture Fund survey, teachers in high-poverty schools were more likely to facilitate innovative instructional approaches in their classrooms (53% of all teachers who serve a majority of students on free or reduced-price lunch), and were more likely to agree that digital learning tools could help them personalize learning.  But those same teachers, as well as parents in low-income households, were less positive about the support they received to use those tools.  Teachers in high-poverty schools were more likely to want parents to be more involved in the upcoming school year than they were in the spring, despite most of those parents saying they were already very involved.

“There are different levels of ‘ready’. We are finding that as parents are forced to become teachers in their own homes, at least a third of those parents are not ‘ready’ to assume that role. They struggle with the basics from a technology standpoint and because they struggle, they are unable to help their children,” Nicole Armstrong, CEO of Atlanta-based nonprofit TechBridge, said. “How do we turn all of this on its head? Redefine what ‘ready’ means for schools, redefine what ‘ready’ means for parents, and redefine what ‘ready’ means for students from different socio-economic backgrounds, so we can provide the necessary support. Collective action and collaboration are critical.”

In his recent work with UNESCO and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, Professor Matthew Farber also prioritized the need for community support to effectively implement social and emotional learning (SEL). According to the report, “The school environment and its various actors must be conducive for SEL training. This means that even while the key to success lies with the teachers and the school, parents and caregivers are also crucial to SEL success."

3. Build public/private partnerships to fund the ecosystem.

More than half of our summit participants said that digital learning products and models will shift significantly over the next two years, however slightly less than half believed those changes will improve access for underserved students. Systemic factors drive scalability and sustainability for impact with underserved groups, and are highly dependent on ecosystem partnerships. 

Games and Learning Summit Participant Survey

“There is great appetite and potential for more formal collaboration, but we are far from knowing how to do this well. That is our challenge. Perhaps one that the current moment positions us better to meet than in the past,“ Amber Oliver, Director of the Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund, said. 

However, the group indicated that the biggest barrier to serving kids in need is a lack of funding to deliver free or discounted resources, in addition to support for both designing and distributing tools that meet the needs of low-income families.

Justin Wedell, Associate Partner at NewSchools Venture Fund, added, “There is a clear appetite for greater equity across the spectrum of ed tech development and implementation. Many of the positive gains we’ve seen on this front were spurred by the pandemic and this year’s protests on racial inequity. When the acute impact of these events subsides, will we have created the infrastructure, process, and will to maintain a more equitable focus for the long-term?”

Change is coming. Will underserved kids be left behind?

Summit speaker David Kleeman shared findings from a recent Dubit report that showed explosive growth for Roblox, where kids between the ages of 8 and 10 are using the virtual environment to socialize with their real-life friends. He also pointed to an increase in student-led learning, and the importance of co-play between parents and kids. Nonprofit providers such as the play2PREVENT Lab at the Yale Center for Health and Learning Games and iCivics also hope to build on increased demand, and are working to ensure their mission-critical content reaches the audiences who could benefit the most.

For many of us who have worked in the digital learning space for a decade or more, the shift towards 1:1 devices, the focus on blended learning and the increased involvement of parents in media choices represent an unprecedented opportunity for impact. To seize this opportunity, groups ready to take action for educational equity will need to summon what we ask of our students: the drive, the patience and the persistence to work together.  

If you are developing, delivering or supporting high-quality digital learning content for underserved kids, contact us for more information

Michelle Miller

Michelle Miller is the Co-Founder and CEO of Games and Learning. Games and Learning advances digital media that improves children’s lives. With support from the National Science Foundation, we deliver social impact through innovative solutions that help parents and teachers find, buy and adopt high-quality digital content for children. Games and Learning also provides industry-leading market analysis, growth strategy, partnership development and fundraising services. 

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