Digital technologies affect almost every area of modern life and business. The purpose of public education is to ensure every child develops the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the 21st century. As such, digital literacy is an essential skill and has become central to K-12 education.
Educational technologies enrich student learning and help teachers meet the unique needs of diverse learners. But there are vast disparities in student access to technology and internet service as well as teachers’ abilities to effectively use educational technologies. This gap in digital equity, the digital divide, has been further exacerbated as schools moved from in-person instruction to online learning during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
This inequitable situation has created an increased need for school leaders who are prepared to address these important issues through equitable technology integration, in and out of the classroom.
What Is Digital Equity?
As related to education, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) states that digital equity ‘involves access to devices, access to broadband and access to teachers qualified to offer technology-powered opportunities to drive learning in the classroom.”
Although fair and consistent access to technology and the internet is fundamental to digital equity, equally important is technology training and skill-development for both students and teachers. In addition, technology-integrated education is essential for students to be ready for whatever career or future they choose.
How Has Digital Equity Evolved in Recent Years?
The root of the gap in digital equity is based almost entirely on socioeconomic and regional inequities. Wealthy schools have been more able to afford technology, internet and appropriate training for educational technology integration, while schools in lower-income communities have been less able to make this investment. With limited access to high-speed internet, schools in rural areas cannot keep up with technology and web-based curriculum.
Hence, students in economically depressed and rural communities have had disproportionately low access to technologies, perpetuating the digital divide. This has left large swaths of the student population behind, creating inequities in both the quality and applicability of a student’s education in the digital era.
Furthermore, the effectiveness of educational technologies and their integration into curriculum and instruction design vary with teachers’ technological competencies, training and willingness to change from traditional offline instruction.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the gap in digital equity between socioeconomic groups and regions. As schools shut their doors and teaching moved online, the quality of education for students without sufficient home access to internet and technology has plummeted and the digital divide has gotten wider. A student without high-speed internet and a capable device at home simply cannot participate in live online lessons or virtual collaborative classroom projects.
What Is Being Done to Improve Digital Equity During and After the Pandemic?
New and longstanding educational initiatives have made significant advances in bridging the digital divide in schools.
- Most American schools now have broadband access and enough devices, and many are implementing the 1:1 model, ensuring every student has access to a capable device.
- The pandemic has further motivated educational leaders, policymakers and even private companies to push for the broad expansion of home access to devices and high-speed internet.
- Some school systems have managed to pull together the resources and public or private partnerships needed to provide families with devices and internet service at home.
- Hundreds of cellular and internet service providers have taken the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge.” These companies provide low-income families with free or low-cost internet or give customers unlimited high-speed cellular data for the duration of the shutdown.
These efforts to bridge the digital divide are promising in the short-term, but advocates for digital equity maintain that such measures should become the new norm, beyond the pandemic.
To this end, school leaders have a responsibility to approach educational technology integration in a more proactive, intentional way. They must create a positive and supportive environment for teachers and students to develop their digital competencies. This involves intensive professional development in schools and technology training for teachers, students and parents. Family engagement is also essential for creating educational continuity between school and home for every student.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred positive movement towards two components of mitigating similar disruptions: technology access required for digital equity and educational technology integration inside and outside the classroom. From educators to policymakers, people have become more conscious of digital inequities, and today’s leaders are working to bridge the digital divide and create a more resilient and equitable educational system.