With Digital Equity, Access is Just the Beginning

By Beth Holland and Hali Larkins, originally published in the March, 2021 issue of Equity and Access

When implementing efforts to improve digital equity for learning, providing access to technology tools and software is often the priority. However, technological access only scratches the surface. In order for all students to truly experience high quality digital learning, solutions should be human centered and fully address the multifaceted challenges that stem from the digital divide in learning.


According to a recent Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group and Southern Education Foundation report, three critical factors drive the digital divide: affordability, availability, and adoption.

Up to 60% of students do not have access because of cost, particularly in urban areas with larger populations of Black and Latino students. Lack of availability disproportionately impacts the rural South, immigrant communities, and indigenous populations leaving up to another 25% disconnected.

Finally, up to 40% of students may live in areas with available and affordable access but they do not adopt the technology because of language barriers, housing insecurity, undocumented status, or lack of familiarity.


In the midst of shifts to remote and hybrid learning environments, this context significantly impacts students’ potential to access high-quality learning experiences.

At the end of last spring, Common Sense and BCG conducted a study to examine the extent to which students could access remote learning. Their analysis determined that 15-16 million students (approximately 30% of the public school population) did not have sufficient high speed internet, and nine million of those students had neither access nor a computer or tablet. Since that time, school leaders, policy makers, and advocacy organizations have worked to increase access to remote learning. While 20-40% more students have been connected this fall, over 12 million still cannot access learning.

At the federal level, responses to current challenges are largely focused on providing funding. Both the March 2020 CARES act and the new COVID relief plan propose funding that can be used to address digital access. More recently, Congress has allocated $3.2 billion to discount broadband services and devices in certain households during COVID, and an additional $7 billion has been proposed by the FCC to support schools and libraries (with the potential for that funding to also apply to home access).


What is missing from these statistics and technology expansion efforts is the principle of humanity. These percentages represent millions of students from millions of households who are essentially cut off from learning. Anecdotal accounts from families and educational research prove that simply having the technology in the home is not enough. Steps that increase funding at the federal level are critical for addressing digital equity. However, real solutions that create sustainable and long-term change require a more human approach.


First, low-cost access does not always solve the issue. For example, Comcast is currently under fire because their low-cost Internet Essentials program is not sufficient for remote learning. Students report that they cannot connect to Zoom classes, stream instructional videos, or successfully access assignments. Such issues in availability particularly impact communities where broadband availability and connectivity either does not exist or is very limited. Policy makers must establish infrastructure projects and initiatives to guarantee access for learners and families.


Second, not all families have the digital literacy to take advantage of new technologies. For example, Oakland REACH is teaching parents how to help their children by providing customized tech support for families who are new to tools for distance and remote learning. Digital inclusion supports such as tech support and multilingual training are efforts that policy makers can establish in order to build digital literacy and inclusion skills amongst students, caregivers, and teachers.


Finally, every context, community, and child has a different set of needs. Both the technology and the learning experience needs to be accessible for ALL learners. The potential for success in providing customized support for specific communities will depend on data and understanding of nuances within specific contexts.

Solutions for equitable digital learning can be achieved by breaking down silos, partnering across public, private, and social sectors, and assessing student-level needs. Establishing processes for data collection that parents and communities trust is essential for understanding the specific needs and solutions that can support equitable learning for ALL students.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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