With the ambitious goal of closing the digital divide, Congress approved and President Biden recently signed into law $65 billion for broadband infrastructure—the largest federal investment in history.
While this new legislation should absolutely be celebrated, we must recognize it as only a critical first step toward digital equity and not as a conclusion reached or goal met. Achieving digital equity only just begins when students and teachers have sufficient access. Real digital equity requires more than just boxes and wires; it requires tailor-made planning best fit to meet school and district needs.
Despite the herculean efforts undertaken by schools, districts, and community groups since the start of the pandemic, the digital divide continues to be a vexing problem. A new report from the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway found that 28.2 million households remain unconnected. Even more concerning, a nationwide study published by New America over the summer reported that even when students do have access, more than half describe being under-connected, meaning that their device may not work properly or their internet may not be fast enough to meaningfully participate in remote learning.
Time and again, researchers have illustrated the negative impacts of the digital divide, particularly on the students with the greatest need: those from lower-income, rural, and racial minority communities as well as those with learning differences.
Still, solving the digital divide will not in itself create digital equity.
A critical condition for an equitable education, digital equity spans a broader context than just access to sufficient devices and high-speed internet. As a framework, it calls on educators and leaders to ensure that all students have access to and ownership of the tools that best support them as learners; opportunities to develop the skills and competencies required to best take advantage of these digital resources; and a deep understanding of not simply using these tools—but using them to engage with learning experiences that are targeted, authentic, relevant, socially connected, and growth-oriented.
For those districts just starting their digital equity journey, it can be tempting to stay focused on technology infrastructure. However, as others who have been on this path for a while can attest, the real digital equity work is only just beginning once students and teachers have sufficient access.
At The Learning Accelerator, a national nonprofit that promotes innovation in education, we recognize the challenges facing school and district leaders as they wrestle with the nuance and complexity of digital equity, and we created a Digital Equity Guide to support concrete, actionable conversations that lead to coherent plans.
Understanding that every school and district will take a different path toward their realization of digital equity, depending on their context and culture, we recommend an iterative, ongoing process which includes six key steps.
- Assemble a digital equity team to bring a diversity of perspectives, ideas, and experiences to the table. Make sure that your team represents those who are most affected by issues pertaining to digital equity: students, teachers, school and academic leaders, and the technology team.
- Examine existing practices, resources, and needs. Yes, digital equity is more than just a focus on digital access, but meaningful conversations cannot begin if students and teachers do not have foundational access to laptops or tablets that can connect to the internet (i.e. more than just relying on student mobile phones and data plans) as well as procedures to protect student privacy and security.
- Develop a concrete shared vision for teaching and learning with technology so that educators, students, and broader community members understand the greater purpose behind digital equity efforts.
- Identify areas for improvement through honest self-assessment to identify where you are currently compared to where you hope to be. By identifying ways to move your efforts forward along a continuum from foundational to advanced, you can work as a team to fundamentally improve digital equity in your system.
- Take action. Whether tackling challenges around digital access or making improvements to classroom practice, engage in reflection and planning to more coherently identify areas of improvement and then plan hops, skips, or leaps forward.
- Begin again. As new technologies and opportunities emerge, so too will new digital equity challenges. School communities must continue to foster productive dialogue within leadership teams in an iterative manner to fully realize the promise of the learning opportunities that could be possible.
Of course, access to high-speed internet and sufficient devices is important, but we shouldn’t wait to have the boxes and wires in place before considering the broader implications of connectivity on student learning. At this precise moment, school leaders have the opportunity to seize on the new infrastructure funding and political momentum to improve the learning experiences and opportunities for all students—and we encourage them to take it.