There can be no educational equity without digital equity.
The integration of technology into our daily lives has not followed a linear trend, but has seen rapid bursts of innovation that have put what were once room-sized computing systems into devices that fit into our pockets and have shifted the way we work, live, and socialize. These innovations have also brought new means of providing in-classroom, blended, and remote instruction. But while some education institutions have the infrastructure and funding to deliver impactful digital teaching and learning to students through educational technology and integrated learning systems, these opportunities are not universal, creating a digital divide that encompasses everything from access to physical devices, accessible high-speed home internet, and opportunities to learn in classrooms where educators have developed expertise in incorporating technology into effective instruction. Additionally, students who graduate as strong digital citizens, with in-depth knowledge and experience in emerging technologies have a competitive advantage that is needed to learn and adapt in our fast-evolving digital world; where many of today’s graduates will work in jobs and fields that do not yet exist and digital skills are a minimum requirement for many high wage, high skill, high demand careers.
Prior to the pandemic, nearly 17 million children did not have access to high-speed internet in their homes and disparities were greater for students from historically underserved populations, with one in three Black, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native families lacking access and nearly two in five families living in rural areas. One-time federal funding made available during the COVID pandemic has funded numerous digital equity initiatives in states and communities nationwide, from an initiative to connect 250,000 families to high-speed internet using existing technology in Phoenix, AZ, to public-private partnerships to utilize $20 million of funding to build 95 miles of high-speed internet infrastructure to underserved areas in Brownsville, TX, to establishing an Office of Statewide Broadband in Maryland that provides assistance to local governments to help reach those struggling with no or poor connectivity. Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Connectivity Fund has provided billions of dollars to provide devices and broadband connections in hopes of closing the homework gap.
While there has been progress on connectivity nationwide, as of 2023, 33 percent of school districts still did not meet the FCC recommendation of bandwidth of 1 Mbps per student and EducationSuperHighway reports that the cost of high-speed broadband still serves as a barrier to access, even where broadband infrastructure exists. And as we move out of the pandemic, fewer schools are offering students access to home internet, with the National Center for Education Statistics reporting 45 percent of public schools offering home internet in 2022, compared to 70 percent in 2021. With the critical nature of connectivity for students and families, it is vital that work to provide access does not slow down or halt in the coming years.
Based on our commitment to take policy from the classroom to Congress, All4Ed conducted listening sessions with Superintendents from across the nation to understand the critical needs schools face around digital equity, as well as how policies are and are not working for practitioners. From these conversations, one early theme was that policymaker focus is concentrated on access to broadband and devices, which is critical, but not the entirety of the digital equity needs Superintendents see day to day. In addition to the “digital divide” as it’s frequently perceived, we also have a “digital-use divide,” Superintendents noted that there is not enough policy conversation around educator access to digital resources and training, funds to support the need for repair and evolution of purchased devices and programs, professional learning opportunities and supports for educators, and other less tangible, yet important, technical supports, such as having technical assistance available in the language spoken by families in the home.
It is critical that policymakers are thinking holistically and sustainably through ways to ensure that barriers such as the cost to acquire technology, providing repairs and replacements for devices, and language accessibility do not stop families and students from accessing the programs they enact. Superintendents and educators are critical partners in ensuring that well-intentioned policy passed during the legislative session is structured to reach those impacted and is successful in the classroom. Additionally, practitioners serve as critical supports for policymakers as they collect feedback, assist in amending existing policy to be more impactful, and support implementation over time.
To start this work, All4Ed has developed a few policies to support lawmakers as they engage in critical digital equity work.
Sustained Funding for Digital Resources
Due to the rapidly changing nature of technology, educators, administrators, and school leaders need to be able to plan and project available resources into the future. This is not possible under current programs that offer one-off competitive grants or funding streams that sunset without plans for renewal. Without a sustained funding stream, administrators do not know whether they will have the funding available to acquire and replace technology when it inevitably breaks or needs to be upgraded, educators are unsure whether they will be able to update dynamic curriculum and classroom software, and school leaders are unsure whether they can reply on funding to start building systems that may falter without resources in years to come.
While sustained funding is critical to build digital equity and access nationwide, the solution does not have to look the same in every state. Due to the complex nature of state funding formulas and education funding systems, All4Ed offers a few model policies to incorporate digital funding into state funding formulas, as well as to provide separate, yet reliable, funding through state grant programs.
Educator Digital Literacy
In classrooms across America, educators are working to meet the needs of the students they serve through high-quality curriculum, social-emotional learning, and modern teaching practices through the inclusion of digital tools and resources. Educators need impactful, efficient professional learning around current and emerging digital resources. These opportunities provide educators with the platform needed to fully integrate digital resources into their curriculum, and to voice where digital offerings are not in line with the reality of classroom teaching and learning.
All4Ed offers two model policies, one for current educators to engage in professional learning around digital literacy and one for emerging educators who are currently enrolled in programs nationwide.
Student Right to Data Privacy
As our classrooms adapt to an ever-changing world, educational technology becomes more central to high-quality teaching and learning. Student data privacy is the first step toward creating a safe cyberspace for students. It is the foundation of a secure and effective educational ecosystem by fostering trust, protecting sensitive information, and supporting the responsible use of data to enhance learning experiences.
Creating safeguards to protect students in cyberspace should be a central component of each state’s digital equity efforts. States must ensure that their schools and the operators of essential sites, services, and systems prioritize data privacy to fulfill their mission of educating and nurturing future generations. All4Ed offers model policy in this area as an initial effort to ensure students remain safe while engaging in digital learning, but stands ready to assist any state that would like to formulate a custom solution for their students.
Our dedicated state policy and government relations team would be happy to discuss in more detail or to provide additional technical assistance in implementing the above proposals or other policy proposals related to digital equity in your state. Please reach out to Jenn Ellis at email@example.com to start the conversation!