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Why now? What's different?

The COVID-19 crisis shined a spotlight on the digital divide, highlighting vast disparities in access to devices and the internet. At the end of the 2020 school year, Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group reported that 15-16 million students lacked sufficient internet access or devices to participate in remote or online learning. That number represented approximately 30 percent of all students enrolled in public education. As districts prepared for the 2020-21 school year, they raced to bring devices and connectivity to students, closing approximately 20-40 percent of that gap; and yet, up to 12 million students remained disconnected.

Student with headphones looking at screen

In 2001, sociologist Paul Atwell described the digital divide in education as a technology gap between the “information haves” and the “information have-nots,” particularly for schools in underserved and rural areas. He argued that this disparity would ultimately result in differences in accumulated knowledge, digital literacy, and social capital.

A vast body of research spanning more than two decades illustrates how the Digital Divide has continuously impacted the students with the most need, including those from lower-income, rural, and racial minority communities as well as those with learning differences or special needs. While many conservations about the Divide focus on internet connectivity, the Digital Divide is neither a new problem nor the only one associated with the broader idea of digital equity.

Digital equity exists as a critical condition for an equitable education. As technology and the internet continue to play an increasingly large role in education and society at large, how might we ensure that all students benefit from an education experience that meets all of their needs?

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 journey for a while can attest, the real digital equity work just begins once students and teachers have access. Before thinking too much about technology, consider the barriers that could be addressed by digital equity if identified and dismantled.

To tackle this broader issue, we will use an essential question to prompt team thinking and planning: WHO needs WHAT to learn HOW?

  • WHO: Are our students served and represented with and by the technologies and resources (i.e., platforms, apps, and tools) that we provide?

  • WHAT: Do the technologies and resources adapt to meet the individual learning needs of students, and do they honor students’ voices, identities, and motivations?

  • HOW: Are the experiences and opportunities created for our students preparing them with the knowledge and skills that they need for active participation in a digital society, democracy, and global economy?

The concept of digital equity is nuanced and complex, spanning 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. It also calls on educators, leaders, and families to help students develop the skills and competencies they require in order to best take advantage of these digital resources. Finally, it helps to communicate the value of not simply using these tools – but using them to engage with learning experiences that are targeted, authentic, relevant, socially connected, and growth-oriented.

Digital Equity is a condition in which ALL individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy. Digital Equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.

The National Digital Inclusion Association (NDIA)

Digital equity runs through both the practices that educators put in place to meet the needs of all learners and the conditions that help to sustain and deepen those practices. It 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, and the essential supports that allow educators to design and implement experiences that directly benefit their students.

This guide intends to help school and system leaders have meaningful, actionable, and iterative conversations around digital equity to develop concrete plans of action. Given this, we encourage leadership teams to navigate it sequentially. In each of these sections, you will find activities, strategies, and concrete examples designed to support deeper understanding and action.

  • Getting Started: Build your digital equity team and reflect on your current progress toward digital equity using the Self-Assessment Tool and Reflection and Planning Workbook.

  • Digital Equity in the Classroom: Explore concrete ways to remove barriers to digital equity by first focusing on the student experience.

  • Essential Conditions to Support Digital Equity: Learn about the systems and structures that need to be in place for these classroom practices to work and for students to be able to benefit from digital equity work.

  • Taking It Forward: Dive into additional research and resources to further accelerate your plan into action

We have created two editable companion tools to support teams’ internal “audit” of current state and planning as they use of this Guide:

  • Self-Assessment Tool: This editable worksheet supports structured reflection. Teams can use this tool to assess their progress in each of the guide areas to develop a clear picture of their strengths and needs.

  • Reflection and Planning Companion Workbook: This interactive document presents deeper questions for reflection in each area of the guide as well as a template for capturing specific, concrete actions that can support improvement.


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