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Equity of access: Digital equity key to the grand scheme of living and learning

By Tim Douglas
October 1, 2015
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“You have the right to the internet. Anytime. Anywhere. Internet access for all.”

That’s from a popular television commercial for NetZero, an internet service provider based in California. And while this is a pitch to sell mobile broadband, it’s also the perfect rallying cry for educators, advocates, politicians and a number of other stakeholders as they fight for digital equity for all students.

Digital equity is about making sure everyone has equal access to technology tools, computers and the internet. But like any issue that invokes the notion of equity, it’s easier to define and identify the problem than it is to solve it. The reality is, millions of people across the globe are trapped in the digital divide. There has never been this kind of access – roughly 3 billion people using the internet worldwide – yet millions of people are still not connected.

The complexity of the problem grows when considering the size of the population that may ultimately prove to be the most impacted: millennials.

According to the New York Times, the total of millennials – those born from 1981 to 1997 – will number more than 75 million, overtaking baby boomers as the United States’ largest living generation. Worldwide, there are about 1.8 billion millennials out of a total population of 7 billion people. Because of their numbers, millennials command the world’s attention, and they are the first digital generation that does not know a world without the internet or smartphones. But, there wasn’t digital equity for them, which means millions of students fell through the cracks. Future efforts are needed to fill these cracks.

Digital age learners demand it

Why the lack of fair access for all? Some simply don’t have access to the internet due to where they live. For students in rural areas, there may be very little, if any, infrastructure to support home internet. And for many other students, their families may not be able to afford basic services, or their school doesn’t have the funding to provide access.

“Technology and being connected to technology is critical in teaching our digital age learners,” says Mila Thomas Fuller, deputy executive director for the National Council of Teachers of English and treasurer for the ISTE Board of Directors. “If we’re not using these tools effectively or providing access [to the internet], then it’s an overall lack in education for our students, and it decreases opportunities for their success. And opportunities are vital for students to be the authors of their future.”

ISTE member Terry Godwaldt agrees that it’s critical to address digital equity as it applies in the grand scheme of teaching children, and as director of programming at The Centre for Global Education at Edmonton Schools in Canada – Godwaldt and his staff work with about 100,000 students in 30 different countries – he sees the issue from a worldwide view.

“A lack of digital access is a lack of access to education, period,” he says. “As more and more learning goes online, some students have access and some do not. This calls into question the overarching idea of equity in education in North America, here in Canada and everywhere.”

The homework gap

There are also situations where the school offers a robust, digital learning experience, but the student’s family either can’t afford services at home or lacks access, creating a “homework gap,” where a student is not able to use the same advantages at home that exist in the classroom.

According to the Pew Research Center, a little more than 80 percent of American homes with school-age children have broadband access, but with about 30 million households in the United States having children between the ages of 6 and 17, this means that some 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed internet service at home. And low-income households – especially African-American and Latino – make up a disproportionate share of this 5 million. In fact, low-income homes with children are four times more likely to be without broadband than their middle- or upper-income counterparts. Worldwide, 60 percent of the population, or 4.2 billion people, remained unconnected at the end of 2014.

“The homework gap is the cruelest part of the digital divide,” says Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. “If a student doesn’t have access at home to do basic school work, it holds them back. It holds the system back and it holds the whole economy back.”

“Let’s imagine ourselves as students,” adds Thomas Fuller. “Let’s assume we need to go to the library to access the internet. We probably wouldn’t do it, so why should we expect a child to do it? Then there are other factors…the child needs to take two buses and travel 45 minutes, or maybe the library charges a fee. It’s not fair.”

Physically close, digital worlds apart

It’s no secret that students who live in more affluent communities or countries with more affluent schools often have advantages over lower-income learners. In some cases, that means more modern facilities, more experienced teachers, better technology and better access to online learning. Two schools can be a mile apart physically, but worlds apart when it comes to technology.

“Education is the great equalizer,” says Trina Davis, Ph.D., associate professor at Texas A&M University in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture and a past ISTE president. “By integrating technology in meaningful ways, we can address the needs of underserved students and the challenges of gender equity. Digital equity is not a narrow view … educational goals and challenges perceived to be outside of our educational technology realm, in reality, are not.”

With the built-in assets that come with affluence, there is also a concern that access to free technology and ubiquitous connectivity will only widen the gap between students of means and their less-advantaged peers.

“It’s true that in theory, the most poor person in the most remote village could participate in online education for free,” says Justin Reich, executive director of the PK12 Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the co-founder of and an ISTE member. “But in reality, the people who are taking online classes usually already have a degree because they already have access. Therefore, ‘free’ benefits the most advantaged.”

This makes it all the more important to level the playing field for all students through digital equity.

The added wrinkle

Let’s say we have facilities that are connected and students who are plugged in at home. Seems like the ideal situation, but there is another wrinkle.

Oftentimes, there are variations from teacher to teacher within the same school regarding the effective use of technology and how it is woven into the classroom. Some teachers have had greater opportunities and support to integrate digital learning into the curriculum.

“We need to also consider professional development,” says Godwaldt. “I can give you a great tool and [all the digital access], but if you don’t know how to use it, did I really give you a tool?”

For the most part, students want to learn, teachers want to teach and administrators want to lead. No matter an individual’s role, ample resources and support must also be part of the mix. ISTE provides tools and support via the ISTE Standards and Essential Conditions, along with recently expanded professional learning services including on-site trainings, virtual community support, instructional coaching and blended learning models.

Lifelines to assistance

The E-Rate program was implemented by the FCC in 1997 to provide discounted telecommunications, internet access and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries. The discounts range from 20 to 90 percent, with higher discounts for higher poverty and more rural schools and libraries. Last year, the FCC expanded support for broadband and wireless connectivity, while eliminating funding for telecom services and web and email hosting. The biggest change, however, was a hefty $1.5 billion annual funding increase.

ISTE and its members played a significant role in advocating for the funding increase by filing comments, providing firsthand accounts of the benefits of the program and submitting a petition signed by more than 1,500 educators.

Commissioner Rosenworcel vows that the FCC isn’t done yet. She’s focused on overhauling the Lifeline program, which, since 1985, has provided a discount on phone service for low-income consumers who qualify. The FCC recently voted 3-2 to add broadband to the program that serves 14 million households; Rosenworcel will now turn her sights toward championing the idea of making more spectrum available for mobile broadband use.

“Wi-Fi is easy to talk about; we all love Wi-Fi,” she says. “Let’s do something about creating more. We need it in more places to help more students.”

Officials attempt to answer the call

Other elected and appointed officials are answering the call for digital equity, as well. U.S. lawmakers are working on bill to replace No Child Left Behind, and additional updates to legislation that impact digital equity are in the works. Many advocates say the current status of the bill makes a strong statement that teachers and students everywhere should have access to the technology they need.

ISTE CEO Brian Lewis in a July statement praised the Senate for including the Innovative Technology Expands Children’s Horizons (I-TECH) program in the ECAA.

I-TECH’s main goal is to ensure that every child has access to digital learning at school and at home, and the program makes a strong investment in professional development for digital age learning.

“ISTE applauds the Senate for its inclusion of the I-TECH program in its final passage of the bipartisan ECAA,” Lewis said. “In today’s connected world, all students deserve access to on-demand digital learning wherever they are. We are pleased that the I-TECH program also makes a strong investment in professional development for digital age learning, giving educators the support they need to more effectively infuse learning with technology to meet the unique needs, learning styles and interest of students.”

And there is support for technology at the highest levels. Last year, President Obama announced an expansion of an initiative to bring high-speed internet connectivity to almost all of America’s schools as part of the ConnectED program.

Godwaldt certainly supports government involvement to provide vision and to pave the way for effective collaboration.

“Industries and corporations need to see themselves as partners in the education process,” he says. “These students are their future workforce, and they need to be trained and prepared as well as possible, and from a Canadian perspective, the government is big enough to lead on these partnerships.”

Finding the funding

The problem has been identified. Experts and interested parties have offered fixes and policies. What’s next?

“Funding is still a major issue,” says Thomas Fuller.

“Right now, there are not enough resources to support all students and to ensure digital equity,” Reich adds.

The FCC boosted the E-Rate budget and will invest to improve the Lifeline program, and there have been other successes. According to Trina Davis, since 2006 there has been, among other things, an increase in educational technology advocacy and outreach efforts at the national level and with ISTE affiliates, an increase in awareness of educational technology and digital equity issues, and “periodic funding successes,” as well.

“However, there is still a great deal of work yet to be done,” she says. “The silos need to continue to come down, and we need to tap into all the expertise in our educational communities … get more groups involved. The broader ISTE community is also in a unique position. We have the opportunity to address digital equity in substantive ways and expand discourse in the United States and internationally.”

Thomas Fuller says state and federal leaders need to do their part, but local officials need to understand their roles as well.

“Improving access to digital content and working toward digital equity need to be a part of every school’s budget process,” she says. “This is a serious issue, and we need to recognize the role of technology in education.”

Beware of gimmicks

State, federal and local investments must also be smart. ISTE has long recommended that any investment in education technology be backed by planning and supported by ongoing professional development, as well as vetted tools like the ISTE Standards and Essential Conditions.

“The ISTE Standards for Students establish skills and knowledge that students need to live, learn and earn in the digital age. To ensure their success, teachers, technology coaches and administrators have their own job-specific ISTE Standards that set out competencies that education professionals need in order to realize the promise of technology for learning for all,” describes Carolyn Sykora, senior director, ISTE Standards. “The ISTE Essential Conditions help guide planning from A to Z, starting with establishing a vision to evaluation of technology implementation within the curriculum. They support leaders in the process of transitioning to connected learning with a proven, effective framework for planning that can save human and financial resources.”

“We can’t be fooled by gimmicks,” adds Godwaldt. “Millions of dollars have been wasted. We need to be strategic about how we spend.”

Even greater – and smarter – investments will be needed to address all the areas of concern with more permanence: the discrepancy of access between low-income students and those who are more affluent; the divide that exists between schools; the lack of infrastructure for rural students; professional development and support services for teachers; and effective partnerships between the business world and schools.

Access required to succeed in school, life

The need for digital access will follow a student for life in different ways. About 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies accept job applications only online, and according to the Internet Innovation Alliance, internet resources help consumers save thousands of dollars a year through discounts on clothes, food and other essentials.

“To succeed in school, to succeed in life and to have a fair shot to succeed in the digital economy, students need digital access,” Rosenworcel says.

The real solution may be to see the problem of digital access as a problem for all of us, and how we will all be affected. This is why it’s important to define the problem in terms of equity.

“Digital equity provides a nice frame, as we reimagine equitable and fair access to a high-quality education for all learners,” Trina Davis says. “Equity is about giving each student what they need.”

“When I think about digital equity, it comes down to this: I want all students to have access to success,” says Thomas Fuller. “If this doesn’t happen, it will have a severe impact on education and all of us.”