a girl writes in a notebook with a laptop nearby


The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of public education. Ten years ago, researchers attempted to clarify the question of “whether or not online learning is actually transforming or appearing to transform education.” In 2020, the question was not only clarified but also answered in the affirmative.

As a disruption, COVID-19 led us to think more about school transformation brought about by online technology. In 2008, Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, and colleagues published Disrupting Class: How Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. In the book, the researchers presented a compelling rationale for changing education in a way that makes far greater use of online technology to provide more student-centered and individualized instruction.

Distance education courses

The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) from public school districts was released in October 2020. According to the CRDC data, distance education courses must meet the following three criteria:

  1. Be credit-granting.
  2. Be technology delivered via audio, video (live or prerecorded), the internet, or other computer-based technology (e.g., via district network).
  3. Have either (a) the instructor in a different location than the students and/or (b) the course content developed in, or delivered from, a different location than that of the students.

The data include information about student enrollment in distance education courses in 17,604 school districts encompassing 97,632 schools and 50.9 million students. Districts with students enrolled in distance education reported students’ race/ethnicity and status of disabilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2017-18 school year, about 21 percent of public schools offered courses entirely online.

Racial disproportionality

Racial disproportionality is often used by researchers to measure education equity. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, disproportionality refers to the underrepresentation or overrepresentation of a racial or ethnic group compared to its percentage in the total population.

In 2018, the total percentage of students of color in public K-12 schools reached at least 52 percent. However, the CRDC data show that nonwhite students only took up 41 percent of the population who were enrolled in distance education courses. For example,

  • In New York, 57 percent of public school students are students of color, but only 28 percent of students enrolled in distance learning courses are students of color.
  • In Nevada, 68 percent of public school students are nonwhite, but only 47 percent of students enrolled in distance learning are students of color.
  • In Florida, 62 percent of public students are nonwhite, but only 41 percent of students enrolled in distance learning are students of color.

Note that in several states, the proportion of students of color in distance learning is close to that in public schools including Vermont and the District of Columbia. In Delaware, Georgia, and Maryland, the percentage of students of color in distance learning is even greater than that in the entire public school system.

Large virtual schools

Large virtual schools are often professional organizations or charter schools that provide K-12 courses through internet- or web-based methods. Theoretically, if distance education courses are designed appropriately for different age, level, and condition of students; if all students have adequate technology and access to the courses; and if students willingly engage in online learning, every student should have distance learning opportunities through statewide or regional virtual schools.

Compared with white students, students of color are not only less likely to enroll in distance learning courses, but also less likely to enroll in those courses of advanced curriculum. The CRDC data show that among the 51 districts with virtual, charter, or special schools (e.g., career and technical education schools) that had over 1,000 students enrolled in distance learning courses, 59 percent of the enrolled students were white, and 41 percent were students of color.

Homework gap

The homework gap refers to the digital divide among students who lack high-speed broadband or adequate internet devices when they are not in school. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this long-documented and persistent inequity. In 2017, 14 percent of children had no internet access at home.

The CRDC data show a strong association between household broadband rate and student enrollment in distance learning. When the rate of households with broadband internet increases, the percentage of nonwhite students enrolled in distance learning courses decreases. The data indicates that students of color are more likely to live in households without broadband internet, and school districts with a high percentage of students of color are more likely to have low enrollment in distance learning courses.

School transformation

More than a decade ago, researchers predicted that by 2016, one-quarter of all high school courses would be online, and by 2019, half of all high school courses would be online. Because of the pandemic, almost all K-12 school courses had to transition out of school buildings and be offered online. While school transformation involves many areas, equity in distance learning must be an integral part of education innovation if it is going to be successful.

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