Digital Learning Day 2016: Working for Digital Equity, Today and Every Day (#DLDay)

Today thousands of teachers and millions of students are celebrating the ways technology transforms student learning as part of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (the Alliance’s) fifth annual Digital Learning Day (DLDay). Teaching strategies that use technology to strengthen student learning (collectively known as digital learning) have become integral instructional practices in many schools. Yet a significant portion of the school-age population cannot access online learning tools after school hours. So this year’s DLDay emphasizes the need for greater digital equity and expanding digital learning opportunities for students, both inside and outside of school.

Research shows that, when implemented properly, technology can produce significant gains in student achievement and boost engagement, particularly among traditionally underserved students. However, approximately 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed internet service at home, according to the Pew Research Center. Low-income families of color represent a disproportionate share of those households. In fact, low-income households with children are four times more likely not to have broadband internet than their middle- or upper-income counterparts. Furthermore, many low- and moderate-income families rely solely on mobile devices, like tablets and smartphones, for internet access. Both unreliable mobile service and limitations on data usage further inhibit their ability to get online.

Such digital inequities contribute to broader educational inequities between students, which in turn perpetuate income inequities that compromise the stability and success of the nation’s economy. Too often, students from low-income families and those of color experience educational “opportunity gaps” in the form of lower expectations from adults and less access to rigorous course work, school counselors, and experienced teachers. These disparities contribute to the gaps in academic achievement and high school graduation rates between poor students of color and their affluent white peers.

The absence of internet service at home further exacerbates these learning and performance gaps, creating a widening divide between the students who can access online assignments and supplementary learning materials at home and those who cannot, most of whom are poor students of color. The nation cannot afford to marginalize these students, who now represent more than half of the public school population. Failing to address their educational needs means depriving much of a generation of Americans of the potential for success in college and a career that is critical in a twenty-first-century economy.

Although schools are working to provide students with greater access to technology, access alone does not guarantee that students of all backgrounds and abilities will have equal opportunities to learn. The promise of technology depends on creating ongoing opportunities for educators to improve their instructional practice, while also building the pipeline of new teachers skilled in digital learning strategies.

Today, through a series of live DLDay digital events, the Alliance will explore how schools and districts are addressing these issues. Local school leaders, educators, and policymakers from small, rural towns to large, urban cities, will share how digital inequities impact their communities and what they are doing to minimize them. Viewers will hear from school superintendents about ways their districts create cultures of equity and innovation to support digital learning, while university leaders discuss how institutions of higher education prepare future educators to teach in a digital age. Meanwhile, Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel will explain federal efforts to expand home high-speed internet access to low-income families through the Lifeline program. Most importantly, DLDay viewers will hear from teachers about ways they use digital tools to personalize student learning and improve academic achievement for traditionally underserved students.

Ensuring that every student is prepared for success in college, a career, and life is the ultimate goal that digital equity should serve. But the work for digital and educational equity does not end today. DLDay is just the beginning. Creating a system where all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, have access to high-quality digital learning opportunities requires the collective effort of policymakers, civil rights advocates, community activists, educators, and parents. The Alliance invites everyone to participate in the digital equity discussion at www.digitallearningday.org/equity, and more importantly, to work together toward greater digital equity not just today but every day.

Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.