Reimagining digital equity to meet student needs

Insights from our conversation with education technology experts
Blog Post
Dec. 1, 2021

In Fall 2021, New America held the third roundtable in a series designed to explore the intersections of inclusive education and digital learning. This conversation centered around one of three takeaways from a previous roundtable, summarized in Bridging Digital Equity and Culturally Responsive Education in PreK–12. This takeaway highlighted the need to reconceive what digital equity means and what it looks like in practice.

The roundtable convened 15 education technology experts, district leaders, and researchers to talk about what equity means in the context of digital tech and supporting student success. The educators in the group shared a resounding desire to reassess what digital equity is, beyond access to WiFi and devices, to address students’ twenty first century learning challenges. We also heard a strong push for teacher support and learning opportunities around digital technology, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 and online learning. Overall, the group agreed that the definition of digital equity has evolved, and that ensuring technology serves student learning in meaningful ways will take intentional approaches at every level of leadership.

Below are two big insights from our roundtable conversation and next steps for pushing digital equity forward.

We need to shift the narrative around digital equity. Top of mind for many participants were the very ways we talk about and define digital equity—and how it shapes and sustains the larger systemic challenges we see play out in school systems. Inequitable funding formulas, digital redlining, and biased, eurocentric curriculum, for example, all contribute incrementally to inequitable educational experiences. To add digital technological tools into the mix, particularly when they don’t account for existing inequities, often serves to maintain these challenges.

Part of this need for reframing is that digital equity issues of today are different than they were 20 years ago. When first coined, the term was used to generally describe the digital divide—the gap between those with internet access and those without. Today digital equity emcompasses access to broadband and devices as well as digital literacy—preparing students and teachers to navigate the online world safely and efficiently—and data privacy and security. We must push the conversation to include the ways in which we prepare students to use digital tools for their own benefit, and how we ensure their information security in the process. Where we still need to ensure broadband and device access, we should also consider how the technology we’re asking students to use is actually serving their ability to learn.

In addition, participants suggested that digital equity of the future means identifying the generational effects of digital inequity that exist today. As one participant, a professor of media, culture, and communication, asked, “What are the kids and grandkids of current students going to experience because of the lack of resources that many students of color experience now? How can we better prepare students and the adults around them to build a better future for themselves and the next generation, and how does technology fit into that future?” Though these questions are too complex to answer in a single session roundtable, they surfaced as a key part of this conversation and as a primary goal for many present.

What are the kids and grandkids of current students going to experience because of the lack of resources that many students of color experience now?

We must engage the whole learning ecosystem—not only students—when it comes to digital equity. Facilitating this narrative shift will require intentional practices at all levels. The learning ecosystem refers to everyone involved in a student’s education, from families to district leaders to policymakers. Often when we think of digital equity, we think solely of students. We tend to overlook both the role that adults, such as parents, families, and teachers, play in students’ digital learning and the ways in which they interact with each other. As our participants pointed out, the structures set up to help families engage with their student’s teachers and understand the ways technology is used in the classroom has everything to do with how invested those families may be in digital learning.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtually every student has been forced to use educational technologies in some capacity, either for online or hybrid learning, through educational apps and games, or in the classroom. Despite this, there are not enough concentrated efforts to support parents and families to help their students use devices or navigate online spaces. “Is the mastery of digital literacy skills being communicated to parents? Are students getting concrete and consistent feedback on digital literacy skills?,” asked one participant, an educator from Oregon.

Teachers, too, are unprepared. Digital tech skills are seldom part of teacher preparation or professional learning, and when they are, it is most often distinct from conversations about instruction or assessment. In addition, state education leaders often lack understanding of the digital equity challenges faced by individual districts, and may make decisions that create another layer of barriers at the school level.

Roundtable participants agreed that improving the ways we discuss, understand, and use technology as a tool for equity requires engaging everyone involved in the learning ecosystem of students. Supporting parents, families, and school and state leaders to be vested parties in the effort to better use technology for meaningful learning is critical.

There are steps we can take to begin ensuring a future of digital equity right now. A group keen on solutions and intentionality, participants had clear ideas for improving digital equity and ensuring the future of education technology does not exacerbate the same inequities we see on a larger scale. First on this list was a way to ensure that education tech tools are actually serving the needs of students. For example, where some software and devices are implemented because they seem new, attractive, or available at the moment a district has funds, educators are calling on school and district leaders to resist the urge to prioritize newness alone. By taking stock of the real needs of students, our participants suggest, leaders could better ensure they’re selecting tech to meet those needs.

Integrated teacher professional development is required to help support educators, who are often learning to use tech tools at the same time they’re having to implement them in the classroom. Rather than offering computer and tech instruction as siloed pieces of professional learning and development, these ought to be integrated parts of educators’ primary professional development. As one participant suggested, if digital tech remains its own, small part of professional development, it will never be prioritized or thought of as critical to student learning.

Finally, the technology and policy experts in the group raised the importance of federal and state investments in broadband and digital infrastructure, including efforts such as the Emergency Connectivity Fund, passed under the American Rescue Plan, and the Affordable Connectivity Program, an expansion of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program passed as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. These pieces of legislation, while not yet fully funded, represent, collectively, $21 billion in funding that could help connect tens of millions of Americans and help them afford home internet and devices. States, too, have additional opportunities with American Rescue Plan dollars to further invest in systems and professional development to support digital equity.

The next roundtable, hosted by New America in coming months, will convene teachers and school leaders around the topics of digital equity and inclusive teaching and learning.

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