The digital divide has long existed, but the global pandemic has illuminated this divide. In 2020, Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group reported that 15-16 million students lacked sufficient internet access or devices to participate in remote or online learning.
While we often focus on adequate internet access and devices, the digital divide encompasses more than equitable access to high-speed internet and powerful computing devices. It goes beyond this to include Digital Inclusion.
What is digital inclusion? The Digital Equity Act of 2021 defines it as:
The activities necessary to ensure that individuals have full access to and use of affordable information and communication technologies, including reliable broadband internet service; internet-enabled devices that meet the individual needs of the user; access to digital literacy training; and the applications and online content that enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration.
Digital inclusion can not stand alone without digital equity; it takes equity a step further into digital literacy training and an individual’s engagement utilizing the tools needed to fully participate in their classroom, school, and community. In other words, digital inclusion may be viewed by educators as the “teaching and learning” aspect of digital equity. As a district sets its vision for student success, digital equity and digital inclusion must be integrated into that vision to fully realize an equitable education for all students. When there are gaps in either of these areas, it creates a digital divide. This divide exists across the country for many students and their families.
Ensuring that digital access is available, leaders must also communicate a shared understanding around the possibilities for student learning. A clearly defined vision for how devices and expanded broadband access should augment and broaden students’ learning opportunities helps district leadership teams to gain buy-in and support from stakeholders, including teachers, families, students, local officials, and the broader community. So what are the possibilities when it comes to full digital inclusion? It is when leaders move beyond boxes and wires and engage in conversations about TEACHING & LEARNING.
On its own, access to connectivity and devices does not guarantee access to engaging educational experiences or quality education. Without thoughtful intervention and attention to the way technology is used for learning, the digital use divide could grow even as access to technology in schools increases. (USDE Office of Ed Tech, https://tech.ed.gov/netp/learning/
As we look more closely at digital inclusion, the recent pandemic has highlighted students’ need for devices that meet their learning needs and a skill set that includes the ability to engage in learning in new ways. Inside digital inclusion, we also see the need for educators to be well versed in utilizing digital tools to engage their students. So let’s take a closer look at digital inclusion as we examine the teaching and learning aspect and explore what district leaders need to look for and include in their vision for student success.
As we work to get devices in the hands of students and ensure that there is adequate broadband coverage for them to participate in learning meaningfully, we must go beyond the devices and connectivity and look towards our instructional practices. Closing the digital equity gap isn’t just about devices or connectivity; it is as much about teaching as it is about technology.
Educators skilled in technology integration are essential because technology can help teachers personalize instruction and engage students in more meaningful ways. In addition, district leaders must understand and value the digital integration and acknowledge the following as they craft their vision:
- Training is often needed to support a teacher’s expertise to integrate technology into learning effectively. Giving teachers time to explore the available technology resources in collaboration with their colleagues and how to utilize them plays an essential role in digital inclusion.
- Teachers should be skilled and proficient at determining when technology will support learning and when it is not needed for a learning goal or impedes the learning process.
A few questions that a leader can begin with as you examine the teaching that is taking place in your district to determine your teachers’ needs might include:
- Do you have a district-wide LMS? If so, what training is available to support teachers in using it effectively?
- Do you have feedback loops to gather information from teachers on their use of the LMS and their needs related to its use?
- Do our teachers have training opportunities to grow their ability to utilize technology to teach both in-person and online effectively?
- Foundational skills – using technology
- Effectively blending technology into instruction, transforming pedagogy
- Are digital tools being used in equitable ways? Do all students have equitable access to high-quality digital learning tools? (Are students just consuming information with the technology, or are they using technology to produce content and create products to showcase their learning?)
In addition, the ISTE Standards for Educators provide good support for leaders who want to identify the teachers’ skills needed to engage students in meaningful ways with technology.
Closing the digital divide doesn’t stop with access, robust devices and teachers who can effectively integrate technology into their instruction. Students should experience curriculum-rich opportunities that are meaningful and offer options that empower them as learners.
- Accessibility: We must ensure that all members of school communities, including those that need additional support, can access essential learning experiences. This access includes but is not limited to students with disabilities and those who might need more help accessing and fully utilizing digital tools and software available to them.
- Digital Literacy: Students must be supported to develop the digital literacy skills to navigate virtual learning environments.
Digital equity and inclusion ensure that students have the knowledge and skills to use technology for learning, frequently interact with robust and accessible content and programs, see their identities represented in and by the technologies they use and experience meaningful opportunities that empower them as learners.
The ISTE Standards for Students can also help educators understand and articulate the skills students need and the types of learning opportunities they must experience to close the digital divide. Finally, school leaders must consider how these standards align with their vision for teaching and learning or their portrait of a graduate profile.
To see how digital inclusion is prioritized within a school district, look at this video from Vancouver Public Schools in Vancouver, Washington. As you watch this video, look for the aspects of digital inclusion that include teaching and learning and observe Vancouver’s work to close the digital divide for its students.
CoSN has additional Digital Equity resources at https://www.cosn.org/edtech-topics/digital-equity/
CoSN Subject Matter Expert, Digital Equity