Visible Hands: From Classrooms to (Home)rooms? 🏠

In the U.S., education delivered over Zoom and similar tools is likely to persist into the upcoming academic year. But questions of economic inequities abound.

Our guest contributor this week is Jennifer Wang. She’s currently a chief of staff at Google and formerly was a corporate strategy analyst at the Walt Disney company. In between these experiences, she freelanced for a year in Los Angeles and made a living by tutoring in affluent households, covering everything from Chinese language to SAT prep. 

And back to school? It depends. 

Countries are pursuing a variety of approaches for returning students to classrooms. In the U.S., education delivered over Zoom and similar tools is likely to persist into the upcoming academic year. But questions of economic inequities abound.     

For most students in the U.S., the last day of the 2020 school year likely ended by exiting a videoconference. People acknowledge videoconferences are incomplete substitutes or can even be a liability (see “Zoombombing”). Even so, tech companies have jostled to demonstrate their utility for distanced education:

  • The Los Angeles Unified School District (the second-largest in the U.S. by enrollment) announced plans to enter into an agreement for Zoom to provide unlimited access to educators and students.

  • Microsoft announced new features for its Teams product to reduce “the fatigue of remote learning and meetings.” That could drive uptake of the Teams for Education product bundled in the 365 subscriptions that schools may already have.

  • Google announced troll-preventing features for its G Suite for Education, which may help it win over school districts.

Moreover, the pandemic has shown that the digital divide still exists in the U.S.: 

  • ~20% of parents with schoolchildren said they do not have access to a computer or reliable internet connection at home, according to an April survey from Pew.

  • This digital divide often translates into a “homework gap” (school-age children lacking the connectivity they need to complete schoolwork at home) that affects black, Hispanic, and lower-income households most prominently.

  • So it’s less surprising then to hear that at the onset of the pandemic, some schools even opted to stick with paper assignment packets and books to mitigate widening the gap.

Many American internet providers pledged various efforts to increase access or not deny access due to inability to pay. While some have summer expiration dates, AT&T will waive data overage charges through September 30, and Comcast will continue offering free service to new low-income customers. 

Meanwhile, more well-off families are exploring pandemic “learning pods” for continued remote learning (though childcare collectives have existed in working family communities for years). The model works like this: a small number of families agree to rotate between their homes, so that their kids can learn together from a live instructor, instead of staring at a computer screen. Great, but this setup assumes that:

  • Everyone adheres to health guidelines that reduce COVID-19 risks. 

  • Home spaces are big enough to safely host a teacher and a few students. And most likely have stable internet access and (patient) parents willing to troubleshoot.

  • An adult to supervise. As the MIT Technology Review reports, children of workers who can’t work from home would already be at a disadvantage, plus potentially the children of working teachers themselves.

  • Families can afford the fees. In Texas, college students will teach for $20 to $55 per hour, depending on class sizes and grade levels. In New York, a pod organized by the Hudson Lab School asks for a one-term commitment to the tune of $13,750 (about $30 per hour), assuming 5 students. 

Companies jockeying in the space acknowledge the equity issues. Swing Education pivoted from its model matching substitute teachers with schools to adding its “Bubbles” service, which provides teachers for at-home learning. In July, they stated their goal is to help 50,000 students get access to learning pods and live teaching, apparently via seeking funding from foundations. It’s TBD whether offers have materialized. 

A good education is priceless, but it’ll take the public and private sectors coming together to ensure that families with less don’t have to settle for less.  

As a consumer:

  • Despite the likely less-than-traditional college campus experience, many students still have dreams of admissions letters and the ability to fund their education. Check out platforms like Going Merry to see if there are additional financial scholarship opportunities you might be missing.  

  • Weigh all of your options before enrolling at a for-profit university. In recent years, for-profits have garnered more attention, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons: less-than-stellar graduation rates and financial trouble that has mired many hopeful students.

As a citizen:

  • Roughly 30 million students in the U.S. who rely on reduced-price or free school lunch programs will still need a reliable source of nutrition. If you’re able to help, your local food bank will likely be glad for monetary or in-kind donations as they continue to serve vulnerable populations. Chegg donated $250K to Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley, which serves neighborhoods around their headquarters in Santa Clara, CA.

As an investor:

  • Edtech and other education-related startups are stepping into the spotlight. Quizlet became a unicorn this past May, though their CEO would rather think of the business as a camel. Chegg, a key competitor to Quizlet, offers textbook rentals, tutoring, and other educational services. Last week, the company beat Wall Street earnings estimates for the fourth quarter in a row. But a key thing to watch: whether there’ll be more cases of students cheating using Chegg, which happened at Georgia Tech and Boston University this past spring.

As an employee: 

  • If your company is getting rid of hardware it no longer needs, encourage them to consider donating to orgs like Tech Exchange operating in the SF Bay Area. They pick up and refurbish devices before getting them to students.

Stay connected with us through Medium, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and, of course, email! Please invite any friends, roommates, coworkers, armchair activists, and learning pod instructors to join the movement. See ya next Thursday!