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Essential Conditions to Support Digital Equity

The systems, supports, and practices to sustain digital equity


The concept of digital equity is nuanced and complex, and to fully realize the promise of the learning opportunities presented in the last section, specific system-level conditions must be in place. Beyond that baseline of access to devices and the internet, systems, supports, and practices must exist to ensure that students develop the skills and competencies to best take advantage of these digital resources. Maintaining digital equity then requires leaders and educators to engage in cycles of continuous improvement so that all students benefit.

Digital equity runs through each system condition and serves as a lens through which to examine the ongoing processes that help schools and districts to align and improve, the enabling systems and structures that lower barriers for implementation and accelerate growth, as well as the essential supports that allow educators to implement classroom practices that directly benefit their students.

This section of the guide focuses on key driving conditions that are central to digital equity processes. They are not intended to be exhaustive; rather, we are focusing on pain points and barriers that often get in the way of systemic change. For each condition area, you will be guided through three steps to ensure you understand what these conditions look like in action and how to implement them in your own school or system.

  • Step 1: Where are you currently? Where do you want to go?
    From a digital equity perspective, identify where some of your schools or classes might be on a continuum, ranging from Foundational to Advanced.

  • Step 2: What is needed to make hops, skips, or leaps toward improvement?
    When working through these questions, think about your current context. This could focus on a specific school or even your district as a whole. What systems, structures, or processes would allow you to make at least an incremental change toward more advanced practices? Remember that digital equity is an ongoing and iterative process. Initially, you may not be able to answer all of these questions.

  • Step 3: What does it look like in practice? How can you implement similar practices in your school or system?
    Explore different strategies you might pursue, focusing on WHO needs WHAT to learn HOW.

Too often, conversations about digital equity begin with the “what” of technology, leading many school and system leaders to view it as synonymous with digital access. Technology departments implement one-to-one device programs or provide students with hotspots and then assume that digital equity has been achieved. However, digital equity is an ongoing, iterative process that needs to begin with a concrete vision for teaching and learning with technology so that educators, students, and broader community members understand the greater purpose behind digital equity efforts.

This vision should both describe how learning experiences can be personalized to meet the unique needs, strengths, interests, and identities of students as well as encourage them to develop the digital skills that they will need to be successful in the future. Given the rapid rate at which technology emerges, this vision will need to be part of broader efforts at continuous improvement such that it evolves to meet emerging needs as they present themselves.

Developing a concrete vision and building a culture of continuous improvement will look different in every context. The two strategies below illustrate how different systems have tackled these challenges.

Strategy 1: Vision 2031 - Adoption of District-Wide, 10-Year Vision for Innovation

Creating a clear and coherent vision for the future requires input from multiple stakeholders as well as an approach that honors the district’s core values and beliefs. The vision should also include specific components and traits that can inform decision-making about student learning, classroom practice, as well as essential enabling systems and supports.

  • WHO: Historically, Hopkins Public Schools has worked to meet the needs of their diverse student population while prioritizing innovation and excellence. The district recognized that all of their students – regardless of race, socioeconomics, gender, or ability – deserved an education that focused on academic achievement as well as preparation for the future.
  • WHAT: The district collaborated with teachers, leaders, students, families, staff, and broader stakeholders to craft a vision that represented the needs and desires of the entire community. The final product, Vision 2031, defines what education should look like in Hopkins as well as the traits that its graduating students should possess. To ensure that the vision was concrete, coherent, and actionable, they also included evidence of specific actions to exemplify their ideals. By clearly articulating the desired traits and characteristics of their graduates, they have a guide for future initiatives and a means to ensure alignment.
  • HOW: The district gathered thousands of data points through surveys, focus groups, listening sessions, and interviews. They then designed a roadmap to indicate how they would know if their vision had actually been achieved. Finally, they aligned specific traits and objectives to their core values and beliefs. As a result, this comprehensive vision serves as a north star for continuous improvement efforts at all levels in the district.

Strategy 2: Engaging Leaders in Culture Change

Digital equity is an iterative process that requires leadership teams to shift their focus from one-time solutions to ongoing, continuous improvement. In addition to requiring new processes, this shift may also necessitate a change in culture.

  • WHO: The 113,000 students in Baltimore County Public Schools come from 117 different countries and speak more than 90 languages. This represents a major shift in demographics from the predominantly white population from a few decades ago. The current students and families reported multiple issues around equity to the district, sparking a need for leadership to take action.
  • WHAT: To facilitate ongoing conversations around equity, the district had to create new structures and a culture focused on continuous improvement. They recognized that if the leaders’ thinking and beliefs did not change, then the system would not be able to evolve. Ultimately, they wanted district and building leaders to understand how adopting an equity lens would allow them to identify systems and structures that would enable classroom practices that better meet the diverse needs of their students.
  • HOW: Many district leaders felt uncomfortable with conversations around equity. To shift this culture and push the leadership team beyond those initial feelings, the goal became to create a culture of elasticity and change so that they could actualize the vision that “all means all.”

Leadership Action Steps

Step 1: What is your vision for digital equity and how are you engaging in continuous improvement?

Go to the Ongoing Process section of the Self-Assessment Tool and consider your current vision for digital equity as well as how that vision might be improved upon with authentic buy-in from your community.

Step 2: What’s needed to make hops, skips, or leaps towards improvement?

With your team, go to page 11 in the Reflection and Planning Workbook and use the questions to reflect. When working through these questions, think about your current context and culture around teaching and learning, digital equity, and continuous improvement.

Step 3: What does digital equity look like when a clear and coherent vision is in place and processes exist to support continuous improvement? How can you do this in your school or system?

Every school and district has a unique culture and context. When considering how to craft a vision for digital equity and then engage in cycles of continuous improvement, it is important to remain focused on the students who will benefit the most.

The two strategies from above each illustrate a crucial component of how teams may consider two of the ongoing processes associated with digital equity. These are just two ongoing processes that leadership teams may need to address. We offer a few more examples that highlight change processes below.

You may also want to explore more strategies for visioning, change management, and continuous improvement before going to page 12 in the Reflection and Planning Workbook. Using the prompt of WHO needs WHAT to learn HOW, try to identify concrete elements that might make your vision for digital equity more cogent and concrete.

To create high-quality classroom experiences, district and school leadership teams need to ensure the existence of enabling systems and structures that remove barriers to digital equity. In the spring of 2021, a Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Southern Education Foundation report identified three barriers to digital equity: affordability, availability, and adoption. While up to 60 percent of students lack access to devices and/or the internet because of cost, and 25 percent remain disconnected due to lack of available internet infrastructure, up to 40 percent of students may live in areas with available and affordable access but still do not adopt high-speed internet.

Schools and districts are poised to address the barriers of affordability and availability through investments in technology infrastructure. The Getting Started section of this guide will help you to identify whether students and teachers have access and ownership of sufficient devices and connectivity. However, addressing barriers to adoption requires a focus on policy and communication.

Through the American Rescue Plan, CARES Act, and E-Rate Emergency Connectivity Fund, new resources have become available to fund technology infrastructure in schools. To help schools and districts use these funds effectively, Digital Promise has created a Technology Sustainability Toolkit.

First, when technology policies are created without keeping digital equity in mind, they can have unintended consequences despite the best intentions. For example:

  • Banning certain devices or apps creates accessibility issues for some students and sends the message that their preferred learning tools are not of value.

  • Locking access to certain accessibility features on devices like text-to-speech, translation, word prediction, or the ability to change fonts and colors can create unnecessary barriers to learning and remove powerful opportunities for differentiated instruction.

  • Policies intended to protect student data and privacy – which are critically important – can harm the students that they intend to help and protect if not created or implemented strategically and thoughtfully.

Second, even if technology infrastructure exists and policies support digital equity, communication remains a critical component to ensure stakeholder buy-in and widespread adoption. Leadership teams must ensure that teachers, students, families, and even the broader community understand the vision and greater purpose for their digital equity initiatives. Language barriers, housing insecurity, undocumented status, and lack of familiarity can all impact whether technology becomes adopted by the members of a community.

From Screen Time to Digital Equity: Over the past several years, increased consumption of technology has often been perceived as a negative phenomenon due to concerns around screen time. District and school leaders have to contend with both educator and parents’ concerns over the amount of time that students spend on devices. However, any discussion about restricting technology should focus on learning and opportunity, rather than on generic screen time. Vilifying screens may leave students feeling further disconnected from learning and disadvantaged by the curriculum. When used intentionally and thoughtfully, technology has the potential to create learning opportunities that are authentic, meaningful, affirming, and engaging. Rather than become mired in discussions about whether to allow devices, or for how long, leaders need to ensure that their policies and communication address how access intends to improve digital equity and opportunity for all students⁠.

Whether communicating about specific policies, ways to use different technologies, or digital equity in general, leadership teams need to implement multiple strategies. The two below offer examples of what different systems have implemented.

Strategy 1: Building Multilingual Systems of Support and Engagement for Parents/Guardians

When in school, students have equal access to technical support should they have issues with devices or tools. However, once outside of school, that support may vary depending on the language proficiency or level of technology familiarity possessed by parents, family members, or other caregivers. If districts intend to build a culture around digital equity, then they need to effectively communicate with families and caregivers in their home language.

  • WHO: Language poses a substantial barrier to the adoption of technology. Parents and caregivers may not be able to access or understand technical support. They also may not have the digital literacy skills to help their children navigate their technology.
  • WHAT: Districts need to provide multilingual, on-demand support to help students and families troubleshoot technology, navigate communication systems, and actively participate in parent-teacher conferences.
  • HOW: Depending on the number of home languages spoken in the district, it may be beneficial to hire bilingual staff to serve as on-demand technical support or translation support during conferences. Numerous systems do offer translation services to ensure emails and other correspondence can be delivered in multiple languages to meet families’ needs.

Strategy 2: Multiple Access Points for Tech Support

If schools and districts want to ensure that all students have access to similar experiences both in school and out, then they need to guarantee equitable access to technical support whether through weekly updates, on-demand tutorials, or virtual town halls. These strategies can also improve stakeholder buy-in for digital equity initiatives and help to communicate the purpose driving continuous improvement efforts.

  • WHO: Students, families, and even teachers may need technical support when not in school, particularly during remote or hybrid learning. These individuals may have different levels of digital literacy as well as different language needs.
  • WHAT: Different strategies meet varying needs depending on the stakeholder group. From personalized support sessions to on-demand tutorials to broader community forums, to support digital equity, schools and districts need to consider multiple contact points.
  • HOW: The technology department can roll out multiple types of systems to better meet the needs of different stakeholder groups – students, teachers, and families. These support systems can be embedded within other communication channels such as curriculum updates or newsletters. By offering virtual meetings, they can also reach families outside of working hours.

Leadership Action Steps

Step 1: What systems and structures exist to support digital equity in your school or district?

Meaningful conversations about digital equity cannot occur without a foundational level of access to devices and the internet as well as procedures to protect student privacy and security. In addition to technology infrastructure, districts need policies that specifically promote digital equity. Go to the Systems and Structures section of the Self-Assessment Tool to examine how your existing policies may support digital equity.

Step 2: What’s needed to make hops, skips, or leaps towards improvement?

With your team, review the reflection questions in the Reflection and Planning Workbook on page 13. When working through these questions, think about your technology infrastructure as well as the related policies.

Step 3: What types of communication strategies can increase support for digital equity? How can you do this in your school or system?

Successfully implementing and maintaining digital equity requires multiple communication strategies. Not only do leadership teams need to communicate the vision and purpose for digital equity, but they also need ongoing communication with students, teachers, families and stakeholders to provide support, address concerns, articulate policy, and educate the community.

We’ve provided a few additional examples of system and structure strategies below. To learn more about how other districts and systems have addressed these challenges, spend some time exploring strategies related to other enabling systems and structures.

When you are ready, go to page 14 in the Digital Equity Workbook. Using the prompt of WHO needs WHAT to learn HOW, try to identify different strategies to improve technology support and better communicate about your digital equity initiative.

Educators require essential, aligned supports to implement the practices and experiences that meet each of their students’ academic, cognitive, social-emotional, psychological, and physical needs. At the most basic level, teachers and students need learning materials and tools that are universally accessible as well as culturally responsive. Because an almost unlimited amount of content exists online, teachers can find resources and experiences that incorporate a number of modalities and diverse perspectives. With equitable access to technology and the internet, students are no longer constrained to only analog content consumption or the boundaries of a standard piece of paper.

However, beyond explicit policies, implicit norms associated with the school or system community and culture drive how technology is – or is not – experienced by students. When viewed through the lens of digital equity...

  • Are students valued as innovators or viewed as disruptors when using technology?

  • Do teachers feel threatened when students have access to new tools and try to utilize them, or empowered by new opportunities and willing to learn alongside them?

  • Do policies and procedures intend to empower students and adults as digital citizens or control their use of technology from a punitive perspective?

Students, teachers, and families need supportive development to bring this supportive culture to life. Importantly, teachers need effective professional learning in order to implement new practices. Too often, device roll-outs and technology initiatives include ineffective “one-and-done” workshops to train teachers. Successful reimagining of learning from a digital equity perspective requires ongoing, personalized coaching and support.

To understand what this may look like in practice, consider the two example strategies below. (NOTE: We’ve focused here on professional learning but provide additional strategy examples following the leadership steps.)

Strategy 1: Personalized Learning "Camping Trips" - Virtual Communities of Practice

To develop the necessary skills and competencies to implement new practices, teachers need ongoing professional learning and access to a supportive community. Both virtual and in-person spaces offer opportunities for structured and unstructured collaborative learning – assuming that all participants have equitable access to sufficient devices and high-speed internet. By creating virtual communities of practice, participants engage in learning experiences similar to what should be created for their students. They learn to work with various tools to build socially connected experiences, engage in growth oriented practices through synchronous and asynchronous means, and gain new perspectives about how technology can support their cognitive, linguistic, and social needs while developing their own competencies and skills to support digital equity.

  • WHO: Teachers and leaders, like their students, need agency and choice when it comes to learning. While all educators need to develop digital and media literacy skills to sustain digital equity, professional learning should be personalized to meet their varying skill levels and voluntary in terms of allowing participants to choose pathways that best suit their needs and schedules.
  • WHAT: Modeling should be a key component of professional learning to support digital equity. Participants should have access to the same tools, platforms, and experiences as their students. This will help them to better understand the experience as learners and allow them to have more empathy when designing new curriculum or policies.
  • HOW: Instead of designing “one-size-fits-all” professional learning days, create multiple pathways to support personalized professional learning. This could include asynchronous and synchronous experiences as well as formal instruction combined with more informal collaborative learning and sharing.

Strategy 2: Virtual Coaching for Teachers

Digital equity necessitates an ongoing process. As new technologies evolve, educators and leaders will need to reconsider practices, policies, and even their own skills. Whether at the classroom or the cabinet level, virtual coaching serves as one strategy for providing that consistent and ongoing support at scale.

  • WHO: As new tools and platforms change the learning context, even veteran teachers and leaders will need professional learning at some point. Depending on their learning preferences, prior experience, comfort with technology, and competency with digital and media literacy, educators will benefit from targeted coaching.
  • WHAT: Online coaches provide synchronous and asynchronous feedback either in real time or during debriefing opportunities. They may use cameras to observe classroom practice and then provide feedback, or work with teachers and leaders during planning processes.
  • HOW: Districts can leverage federal stimulus funding to make long-term investments in the human capital of their teachers and leaders. By hiring virtual coaches, they can increase the capacity of their staff without being constrained to only the local talent pool. This is particularly for schools and systems in rural or remote areas.

Leadership Action Steps

Step 1: What essential supports exist to help your students, families, and teachers enact classroom practices that embrace digital equity?

Think about the coherent, ongoing, sustainable supports (e.g., materials, cultural tools, training) that you already have in place to support professional learning. As schools and systems continued with remote and hybrid learning during the 2020-21 school year, only 48 percent of districts indicated that they would provide additional professional learning and 35 percent reported that instructional coaching would be available – despite an expressed need from teachers and leaders.

From a digital equity perspective, professional learning should not only help teachers but also students, leaders, and families to gain concrete digital literacy skills (e.g., using accessibility features, searching effectively, working with a variety of creative tools) and broader media literacy competencies (e.g., assessing the credibility of sources, understanding algorithms in systems, recognizing how different forms of media communicate their messages).

Consider the tools, supports, and professional development that your teachers, students, families, and leaders receive. Then go to the Essential Supports section of the Self-Assessment Tool to see how your current supports foster digital equity.

Step 2: What’s needed to make hops, skips, or leaps towards improvement?

With your team, review the questions in the Reflection and Planning Workbook on page 15. When working through these questions, think about your current context and culture around teaching and learning, digital equity, and continuous improvement. Try to identify any potential modifications in thinking or process that would allow you to increase the knowledge and capabilities of your teachers, students, families, and leaders.

Step 3: What types of professional learning experiences can support digital equity? How can you do this in your school or system?

The strategies above offer examples of how districts provided professional learning support for teachers. Digital equity requires increased capacity from the entire community, so here are some additional strategies and tools that we’ve seen districts put in place to create key, essential supports.

You may also want to explore other essential supports for success and scale. After you review the strategies, go to page 16 in the Reflection and Planning Workbook. Using the prompt of WHO needs WHAT to learn HOW, try to identify different avenues for professional learning to support digital equity in practice.

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