What Is Digital Equity, and How Can States Play a Role?

Quality

Over the last decade, the U.S. has renewed and revised its focus on educational equity. Some states are considering educational equity through the lens of the reauthorization of the federal K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Others are addressing the longstanding need to do more for students from underserved communities by improving access to and distribution of individualized educational supports, funding and opportunities for these students.

Now, fast forward to March 2020 when schools closed their doors during the pandemic.  Nearly 15 million students and half a million teachers—concentrated in underserved and rural communities—did not have internet access or the respective technology, hardware, software and technology-based skills to continue their educational experience from their homes.1 At this important focal point, the need for educational equity quickly converged with the need to ensure a state of digital equity for our nation’s students.

What Is Digital Equity?

National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) is a renowned education group of over 300 nonprofits, academics and policymakers, which serves as a unified voice on the subject of digital equity. The NDIA defines digital equity as “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 no longer just a facet of educational equity. The pandemic has deeply embedded digital equity into the educational ecosystem and made it a foundation for educational equity. Now students, families and educators are required to participate in “digital learning”2 on a regular basis.

Digital equity is now a national priority that will require significant funding, support and focus to carry out and sustain. The surge in virtual learning during the pandemic demonstrated that the adoption of education technology (edtech) requires time and resources to accomplish two major tasks. First, determine the grade-level appropriate technology and digital curriculum students and educators need. Second, create and implement professional development for educators and digital skills training3 for families who are not familiar with digital learning and edtech.

The Case for Digital Equity

Research, before and during the pandemic, reflects how digital inequity limits students’ educational progress over time. When students lack home connectivity, access to digital learning devices and digital skills training, they’re more likely to experience a homework gap, instructional loss and the effects of a broader digital divide.

In particular, research suggests that these challenges disproportionately impact students of color, students in rural and/or underserved areas as well as students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.4 But states need to consider more than just students when they introduce new devices and digital learning practices. Digital equity is also essential for administrators, educators, counselors, parents and caregivers. These stakeholders are all part of the educational ecosystem and, consequently, need adequate access to technology training and skills development.

Once these stakeholders are trained and equipped to use digital learning and edtech, they are more likely to feel be empowered—rather than intimidated—to help create a robust learning experience for students.

How Are States Playing a Role in Advancing Digital Equity?

Within weeks of the pandemic shutdown, the federal, state and local governments had to take a series of thoughtful, cohesive steps to plan and prioritize digital equity—particularly as it concerns education. In a post-COVID-19 world, digital learning was no longer an option or an innovation; it was the bare minimum to ensure students could finish their school year and prepare for the school years to come.

In light of COVID-19, states have organized several approaches to prioritize closing the digital divide for students. Most states have identified one or more short-term solutions, including sending WiFi hotspots, devices and internet access codes to support connectivity in students’ homes and help students transition to virtual learning. While this is a move in the right direction, short-term solutions may not be enough to support a sustainable vision for attaining digital equity.
 
As outlined above, there are tangible benefits for education stakeholders who are crafting a long-term vision and plan for digital equity. Therefore, states could consider creating a long-term plan to close existing connectivity gaps, ensure widespread access to digital learning and support students, families and educators with the necessary digital skills training, as part of the basic ideology to attain a state of digital equity.

Five Opportunities to Advance Digital Equity

Ensuring students, families and educators receive equitable access to participate in a meaningful digital learning experience will require the following opportunities and supports:

Access to widespread remote learning devices and internet access for underserved students.

High-quality instruction through online learning platforms and high-quality curriculum.

Professional development in online learning for educators.

Virtual learning services for students with additional learning needs (e.g., special education, English language learners).

Digital skills and device training and technological and instructional education accounts for families.

Our next blog post will highlight state-specific progress in closing the digital divide, both prior to and during the pandemic. The post will include recommendations for states to consider on the fundamental principles states can use to achieve digital equity. These efforts seek to support and engage a wide array of education and non-education stakeholders who can potentially play a role in closing the digital divide for students.


1. Closing the K-12 Divide in the Age of Distance Learning. Common Sense + BCG.

2. Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education. Office of Education Technology 2017.

3. Digital Inclusion Day. National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

4. Connect All Students: How State and School Districts Can Close the Digital Divide. Common Sense + BCG + EducationSuperHighway.

Solution Areas:

Digital Access & Equity

About the Author