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Problems of Practice

Digital Access: How can leaders ensure that every student can access the digital tools they need to develop as expert learners?

Key Takeaways

To help students and families access and effectively use digital tools, school leaders should:

  • Understand the current state of digital access by taking an inventory of the digital platforms and tools students and families can presently access.

  • Explicitly teach digital skills to ensure effective use while upholding standards for safety, health, and citizenship.

  • Partner with families and community organizations to ensure consistent access to and experience with digital tools across both school and home settings.

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What is the problem?

Technology continues to be an ever-expanding element shaping and influencing the educational journeys of students and their families. Thanks to widespread access to laptops and the internet in schools (a result of herculean efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic), more educators than ever are utilizing technology in both instruction and family engagement. However, if students are not able or prepared to fluently and effectively utilize digital tools, they will struggle to access the increased opportunities they offer. This notion is a key component of the digital access divide.

“The Digital Access Divide stands between those students and educators who have equitable, sustainable access to connectivity, devices, and digital content and those who do not.” – 2024 National Education Technology Plan (NETP)

Why is it important?

Equitable access to powerful devices and high-speed internet, educational technology, and sufficient infrastructure are essential conditions for meeting the needs of today’s students. Digital technology is fundamentally changing the ways in which individuals engage with education, democracy, society, and the economy – from how people access content, to how they communicate and collaborate, to how they socialize and obtain information from the world. Once considered an add-on, technology is now pervasive in students’ lives. However, not all students have equitable access to the tools, knowledge, and skills that will allow them to be successful learners.

The research says...

How: Solution

Digital access requires all students to have effective technology in their environment, the ability to use it, and the knowledge around how to do so fluently and effectively. It is a foundational element – alongside digital use and design – of digital equity in education, working together to form a comprehensive, effective learning experience for students. Digital access is often seen as the primary building block, creating the requisite digital infrastructure, accessibility features and supports, and a thoughtful process to ensure consistent adoption among school communities.

The approaches below can be implemented by school leaders to make meaningful progress toward this end. While each can be executed individually, these approaches will be more powerful if implemented together.

1

Conduct a technology audit.

Take stock of the current state of digital use across your school and in your classrooms to determine what devices and edtech tools students have access to and how they are using them. Conducting an audit will also reveal bright spots and barriers to access.

What this looks like in practice:

  1. Incorporate student voice: As the intended users of devices and tools, students’ insights into the way they access technology is critical. Provide opportunities for students to give input through surveys, focus groups, and informal conversations.

  2. Collect feedback from teachers: Teachers are the ones who lead technology implementation in schools. Leverage surveys and focus groups to understand how they are accessing available digital tools for their classrooms.

  3. Gather data from multiple sources: In addition to gathering feedback from students and teachers, collect data through classroom observations as well as reviews of edtech access data. During observations, school leaders can focus on evidence of digital literacy, citizenship, health, and accessibility.

  4. Elevate accessibility: When looking at the current state of digital access, examine whether edtech tools are universally accessible to all students regardless of learning or physical differences. Make sure to check for auditory, cognitive, language, physical, and visual accessibility. Digital tools should include critical accessibility features such as text-to-speech capabilities, dictation, language translation, the ability to adjust fonts and colors, and the capacity to integrate with other assistive technology devices (e.g., screen readers, foot switches).

  5. Center cultural responsiveness: Teachers and school leaders should identify groups that have historically been marginalized and make sure to collect data on whether students from these groups are able to access devices and tools in the same way as their peers. Tools should also be reviewed for representation, ensuring that they honor the voices, identities, and motivations of students.

The strategies below offer concrete ways to assess and understand students’ experiences and usage of technology in the school setting:

2

Explicitly teach digital literacy, citizenship, and health.

Digital literacy, citizenship, and health can no longer be confined to a single lesson or confined only into a technology or computer science course. Instead, these concepts must be intentionally incorporated into instruction so that students develop the skills, capacity, and understanding they need to best use technology.

What this looks like in practice:

  1. Incorporate digital literacy: Beyond basic “computer literacy” (i.e., how to turn on a computer or use a smartphone app), digital literacy includes the knowledge and skills required to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate information with technology. School leaders can help teachers develop their students’ digital literacy skills by setting clear expectations about when, how, why, and by whom students should be taught these skills. Organizations such as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and Common Sense have developed standards and curricula to help schools teach digital literacy. School leaders can set up a committee of staff members tasked with reviewing digital literacy standards and curricula as well as making a scope and sequence based on their unique context.

  2. Explicitly teach digital health and citizenship: Age-appropriate lessons about digital citizenship and health should be taught at all grade levels. As defined by the 2024 NETP, this “refers to the ability of individuals to maintain a healthy and empowered relationship with technology and the digital world while using technology appropriately, responsibly, and safely.” Even though many students growing up with technology have been dubbed “digital natives,” students need explicit instruction to help them develop skills they will need for the workforce and post-secondary education success, from understanding how to protect their privacy, to managing online relationships, to recognizing how to set personal boundaries around technology use.

  3. Create a culture in which teaching digital skills is the responsibility of all staff members: These topics must be taught and reinforced by all staff members. Teaching digital skills cannot be the sole responsibility of the technology department and lessons around appropriate technology use need to be reinforced regularly. Develop expectations about what skills students need to know at each grade level and determine a concrete plan to ensure students are taught these skills by multiple practitioners across the school.

Below are a few concrete strategies for helping students develop their digital skills:

The following resources from TLA and other organizations in the field provide additional guidance on teaching digital literacy and citizenship:

3

Forge partnerships to create consistent access in school and at home.

Students must have consistent access to powerful devices, high-speed internet, and quality edtech tools in school and at home. Schools can form partnerships with local community organizations and businesses to increase student access to devices, the internet, and digital literacy support. Families also serve as important partners in this process, and schools can help them identify available and affordable internet access opportunities, as well as can weave digital literacy topics into family engagement and outreach.

What this looks like in practice:

  1. Identify barriers to adoption through gathering stakeholder perspectives: Gather baseline information on what technology access students have at home by engaging families through surveys, informal conversations, and direct outreach. Take this opportunity to also identify potential challenges or barriers (e.g., affordability, lack of high-speed internet infrastructure). Be mindful that families positioned furthest from opportunity may be wary of sharing personal information with schools, so leaders must consistently communicate to families the goals behind having digital access at home and determine ways to provide appropriate support. (Note: You may be able to do this as part of your technology audit.)

  2. Develop solutions for home access: Schools can identify ways within their control to support digital access at home. For example, schools can develop programs allowing students to take devices home with them, either through 1:1 programs or loaner options. To help provide students internet access, schools can create mobile hotspots, outfit school buses with Wi-Fi, or build their own community networks.

  3. Teach families how to use technology in support of their students: With students having access to devices, connectivity, and digital tools in their homes, schools can support families by showing them how they can support their students using this technology. Schools can host technology open houses and have asynchronous resources (e.g., videos, tutorials) available for family members so they can learn how their students use these tools and how they can best support them. Schools can also provide parents with online accounts that will help them to monitor their student’s progress and better connect with teachers.

  4. Partner with community organizations and businesses: Working towards digital equity is a community effort and one that should not be shouldered by school systems alone. Internet service providers are often able to provide low-cost internet for low-income households through programs such as the Federal Affordable Connectivity Program. After-school programs such as the Boys and Girls Clubs – and other public spaces like libraries – have tools and devices that students and their families can borrow. Leaders should invest time into seeking out these partnerships and then providing the right communications to students and their families to help them understand what resources are available to them.

Below are some actionable strategies to help improve access and adoption through partnership with families:

Take it further

To learn more about how leaders can help close the digital access divide, explore these additional resources:

This resource is part of a larger Problem of Practice series developed by The Learning Accelerator (TLA) that provides guidance for educators on how they can work to increase digital equity across critical levers identified in the 2024 National Educational Technology Plan. Check back soon to explore the other parts of this series on digital use and digital design!