Path to Digital Equity: Why we need to address the digital divide with solutions around adoption
Imagine creating conditions where every learner and community can fully access and leverage the technology needed for full participation in learning, the economy, and society at large. Simultaneously, every learner and community is equipped with connected devices, learning content, digital literacy skills, technical support, and a reliable, high-speed internet connection.
This vision is driving the newly-announced Digital Equity Education Roundtables (DEER) Initiative, led through a partnership between the Office of Educational Technology (OET) at the US Department of Education and Digital Promise.
Today, it’s estimated that nearly 16 million students lack adequate internet connection, access to devices at home, or both. Technical approaches, such as distributing devices and subsidizing internet subscription costs, are essential components to the solution. However, these approaches on their own will not solve the human-level challenges individuals and communities face daily. About six million learners and three million households currently face adoption barriers beyond availability and affordability. Moreover, less than 25 percent of households eligible for the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit had enrolled as of December 2021, and a similar percentage of low- and middle-income households are even aware of free or discount internet offers.
Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), otherwise known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, states have been tasked with identifying such barriers and more through the development of a state digital equity plan. Thus far, the field has learned the following insights, which impact learners and communities in varying ways:
- Awareness and understanding of available programs and resources is critical. In some instances, student communities are misidentified as fully connected and do not receive the necessary communication and support, when they may actually be “under-connected.” In other instances, families’ needs such as language barriers aren’t properly addressed.
- Access to available programs and resources can be challenging. Enrollment for broadband and related supports often call for tedious, time-consuming processes that cause confusion around eligibility, application status, distribution, and installment.
- Trust between learner communities and services is essential. For many communities, there is a lack of existing relationships between public/private sectors and constituents, along with concerns about data privacy, hidden or unexpected fees, or future costs.
- Building digital readiness and digital literacy among learners and communities can support adoption. Lack of opportunities to build such skills or obtain readily-available technical support prohibits individuals from taking full advantage of connectivity for learning.
“Over the last two years, we’ve learned that broadband access to the internet and technology-enabled learning are not nice-to-haves, but critically essential to providing learning continuity during disruptive and uncertain times. The future of learning will force us to utilize connected devices to create more ubiquitous and more powerful learning experiences for students independent of time and location. The $65B bipartisan investment into our country’s technological infrastructure will move us closer to achieving digital equity for all communities and students, and particularly for students of color, Native students, students who live in rural and urban communities, and for students who attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority-Serving higher education institutions.” D’Andre Weaver, Chief Digital Equity Officer, Digital Promise
In the last two years, various strategies from different levels of the education system have emerged to solve for these barriers. Long-term, systemic approaches call for iterations of these solutions, driven by ongoing input from the communities experiencing the barriers, along with cross-sector partnerships to ensure that schools alone aren’t burdened with the responsibility of solving societal challenges. These strategies include:
- Delivering personalized and accessible communication that meets families where they are, such as efforts to deploy digital inclusion teams and leveraging multiple methods to engage families with language translation available;
- Providing multiple ways to demonstrate program eligibility and limiting the number of steps necessary to apply, along with transparency about data collection, privacy, and future costs;
- Collaborating with community members to build a shared vision for digital equity, develop partnerships with experienced organizations and community champions who have successfully engaged in inclusion efforts, and identify and invest in shared spaces with less adoption barriers; and
- Focusing on capacity building by offering more training for families and students, providing professional development and coaching to educators on active, inclusive, and accessible learning experiences, and providing on-demand, multilingual educator and family technical support.
“The broadband funds in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provide a historic opportunity to close the digital divide for our learners, families, and communities. We look forward to working with our partners at Digital Promise to examine barriers that impede equitable access to technology-enabled learning and provide recommendations around how leaders, especially through their digital equity plans, can overcome those challenges.” — Kristina Ishmael, Deputy Director, Office of Educational Technology
In order to learn from these strategies, OET and Digital Promise are hosting a series of national conversations to further examine barriers faced by learner communities and identify promising solutions that can lead to real impact on their abilities to access and use technology for learning. Based on these conversations, OET and Digital Promise will share strategic guidance on equitable broadband adoption considerations to support states in building their digital equity plans, as well as drive community action and commitment aligned to the vision for digital equity emphasized in the publication.
If you’d like to get involved, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with to share questions and your successful stories of adoption strategies. Please Include “OET DEER” in the Subject Line
 Whereas availability and affordability of broadband refer to the coverage of physical infrastructure and low/no-cost programs to enable access, “adoption” refers to the process by which an individual obtains daily access to the internet at a speed, quality, and capacity necessary for accomplishing common tasks, with the digital skills that are for the individual to participate online, and on a personal device and secure and convenient network.