In many communities, not all students have basic access to technology. Before the COVID shut-down, roughly 17 percent of US teens were unable to complete homework because of a lack of access. A further 12 percent had to seek out public WiFi for the purpose, an option that became increasingly difficult as public access points shut down for months.
At the same time, access to technology is more important now than ever. Even before COVID, technology was vital for college students and for most employment. Gone are the days when office workers had to learn to use computers but other careers could avoid it. Today, even blue-collar workers are expected to understand technology to some extent.
As the world adjusted to the pandemic, digital access became a lifeline for households across the country and around the world. But what happened to that 17 percent without access and the 12 percent whose public WiFi options dried up? If we don’t remedy this digital divide, these students will not be able to access their education from a distance, let alone be prepared for college or the workplace. In short, we will have failed them.
What Is Digital Equity?
First, it’s important to define the term. Digital equity means equal access and ability to use technology for all students and teachers. You may hear digital equity mentioned alongside digital inclusion. Digital inclusion refers to the ways in which we are working toward digital equity.
Several Barriers to Digital Equity
On the surface, it’s easy to think that handing out digital devices to each student would solve the problem, but the solution is rarely so cut and dry. There are several factors that must be addressed.
Price of Services and Devices
The first, most obvious problem is the price of technology today. Devices start in the hundreds of dollars and can run into the thousands if you want advanced features included. Add to that the cost of home internet service or mobile data, and you have an expense that many families cannot afford.
Lack of Internet Access
It would be a mistake to think that all families who are doing well financially have equal access. The problem doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with family finances. In rural areas, internet access may be limited by availability rather than cost. If some of your students live outside town limits, they may be able to afford a dozen horses and a staff to care for them, and yet have minimal internet speeds or no home WiFi at all.
Finally, even if your students can afford technology and have access to high-speed internet, they may still run into a problem with parental understanding. Parents who did not grow up with technology in their lives may not be able to help students if they don’t understand how to use tech themselves. This is particularly true with students being raised by grandparents or whose parents are older, as well as those who have immigrated from less-developed countries. Still, others may have simply never learned about technology because they were uninterested or never felt they needed it.
Providing Devices Doesn’t Go Far Enough
So how do schools help their students cross the great tech divide? If handing out a Chromebook to each student isn’t enough, what else needs to be done?
First, students also need access to the internet. This means affordable internet service for low-income families and high-speed hot spots for those who live in more remote areas.
Next, schools need to invest in the community, beyond the students in their care. Parents need training on how to use devices. They must also be taught about the dangers of unsupervised internet access for young minds. Free community workshops and evening classes can go a long way toward overcoming this hurdle.
Finally, kids need more than simple access—they also need to be safe online. This means devices provided to students need to have restrictions so kids can’t access harmful content. Products like GoGuardian Admin™ can help monitor and manage devices for K-12 schools. With a complete web filter, students can be protected from online scams and adult content.
Ways People Are Working Toward Bridging the Gap
For teachers and school administrators fighting against budgetary restrictions and pandemic precautions, the problem may seem insurmountable. Yet there are those who are making great strides toward digital equity in various ways.
San Francisco's Digital Equity Strategic Plan for 2019-2024 will have a big impact on the community. Its goals include affordable internet for the whole city, digital literacy for all residents, and long-term benefits for the community at large.
Washington State's Digital Equity Initiative is designed to provide resources for remote learning throughout the entire state. The initiative is soliciting funds from private and corporate donors to provide devices, broadband access, and tech support for students.
The North Carolina Department of Information Technology has been hard at work, aiming for broadband access across the entire state. Even before the pandemic, the department was working on the infrastructure needed to make this dream a reality.
The city of Boston is working to bring affordable and reliable internet to public spaces all over the city. Its Digital Equity Fund is expanding fiber-optic networks and providing free WiFi too. It is offering digital skills training and helping to make digital tools available to the community.
Finally, Common Sense Media has a plan to help states and school districts promote digital equity with evidence-based solutions for K-12. The organization is working to encourage Congress to invest in the type of infrastructure that will make digital equity possible across the country.
No matter the difficulties in your community, there are steps that can be taken to bridge the digital divide. Carefully study the programs above, and learn from the steps they are taking. Then work with policymakers in your area to promote digital equity in your community.