Distance Learning and the Digital Divide

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Many thanks to our partners at Comcast for bringing online access to so many in our community!

When I first heard that schools were transitioning to online learning due to the coronavirus, my first thought was, “But what about all the kids without home internet?” While teachers are being amazing and reassuring families that we’re all in this together, I can’t help but worry about children getting left behind.

Our partners at Comcast reached out to Portland Mom Collective because they are working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen to ANY students. In addition to making free internet available to families with the help of community partners and their Internet Essentials program, Comcast has also ramped up parental controls, opened up their public WiFi hotspots and brought a ton of educational content to their X1 and Flex services in response to the coronavirus.

To talk over how Comcast/Xfinity are helping families through this time, I spoke with Rebecca Brown, Director of Community Impact at Comcast. When we spoke, she was working from home with her three kids, like so many of us. After all, it wouldn’t have been an authentic mom-to-mom pandemic conversation if we hadn’t been interrupted at least once!

Kid at ComputerThanks for taking some time out to talk to me today. First of all, I know you have kids — how old are they?

We have a ten-year-old daughter in fifth grade, an eight year-old son in second grade, and a four-year-old daughter. So I am working full-time from home and managing distance-learning, just taking it day-by-day.

Tell me about the distance learning piece. I know Comcast is helping facilitate online access for local families. How?

The Internet Essentials program is a low-cost option for low-income families and households; we are now offering two free months of internet to families who apply by June 30. Our goal is to help as many households as possible get online, with access, for distance learning and beyond.

I have big concerns about the equity piece of distance learning, as do many others. What are your thoughts on that?

This pandemic has really shined a spotlight on what we call the “digital divide;” the very reason why the Internet Essentials program was created. When we launched it nine years ago, we knew that there were those who couldn’t afford getting online, so we developed a program that addressed the three main barriers for those individuals: how can someone get a low-cost computer, a low-cost home internet service, and the free digital literacy they need to navigate the online space.

Now, of course, we’re seeing there is still a huge need. We’re partnering with different school districts and non-profits that want to help support their more vulnerable families. They basically say “Hey, if Comcast can get families connected for a stretch, we’re going to help pay for Internet Essentials for an even longer time period.” Ultimately, Comcast supports the first two months and our community partners are going to cover the next four months for these families. We have partnerships with The Fund for PPS, Salem-Keizer School District, Portland Community College, and more.

Also, we have opened up all of our public and business Wi-Fi hotspots to everyone, even if you are a non-Xfinity subscriber. If someone is out and about or near a public area, they can hop on any open network; we have a map online that shows what is available. It’s just another way to get people connected.

I read that screen time is up nationally, and that Comcast/Xfinity is reporting a 57% increase in daily xFi usage and a 27% increase in parental control activation. What can you tell me about these tools?

I don’t know about you but I have definitely seen an uptick in my kids’ screen time. Part of it is them doing school work, of course, but people are also home more and using devices more, in general.

One thing I love is that utilizing our xFi app, you can limit screen time and pause devices, giving you the option of how to manage your kids’ access.  So for my family, in our “computer area”, we are all set up together. I have set the iPad, for example, so that it can’t be accessed until noon and then it’s inactive at 8pm. The kids have 2-3 hours altogether throughout the day where they can use the iPad, split between three kids.

Also, at lunch and dinner, on my xFi app, I can hit a button and say, “Boop! Ok, we’re going to pause devices now and let’s all come together.” It’s really easy and pausing devices means we are taking a screen break as a family. The kids know that is how it works and just expect it now.

What advice do you have for families navigating digital learning, in general?

First and foremost, we don’t have to do this perfectly. It’s ok to give yourself a break and the kids a break, because this is new for all of us. I saw a quote from a teacher that said something along the lines of, “Don’t worry parents, in September, we’ll get the kids back on track; that’s our superpower.” The best thing you can do right now is be your kids’ support, give them grace, and give yourself grace. I think that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying. We have sort of set a time frame and a schedule (loosely), and I think that has helped. They know we still have to get up, make our beds, and get dressed. It’s not jammies all day – except when it IS jammy day, LOL. And we do some schoolwork, check-in, take a break, then craft time. Keeping a schedule and having some grace, that’s how we’re getting through each day.

I also heard that there is some educational programming available through Xfinity. Tell me more.

Oh, this is so cool! If people have X1 or Flex, there is a ton of educational content out that the company has added.  You can easily access it by saying “Education” into the Voice remote.  We’ve been using it at home and — oh gosh! Do you do GoNoodle? It gets the kids moving and honestly it gets me active, too! That’s an example of some programming that you can easily access through Xfinity TV.

The educational content we’ve curated is divided by grade level, either K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. It’s very easy; you click in on your grade level and there’s all kinds of options — from math, language arts, science, yoga, fitness … a little bit of everything is in there, and something for the kids AND adults. It’s a great resource. There has always been an effort to provide safe and enjoyable, family-friendly entertainment, but we have worked to enhance the content that’s available to help families out at this time. Yes, it’s still screen time, but it’s a different screen and having something on a TV screen versus a small Chromebook can be a different experience. For GoNoodle, we can all spread out around the room and everyone can see it. It’s really fun!

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