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Is Digital Equity Attainable in K–12 Education?

From the continued need for access to the requirements for meaningful integration, four experts shared their thoughts on digital equity’s challenges and its future in our nation’s schools.

By Rebecca Torchia

Families throughout the nation faced digital inequities before the pandemic became a factor in the spring of 2020. However, with the shift to remote learning, the conversation around the digital divide became impossible to ignore. There was a push, in tandem with these conversations, to bring connectivity and the meaningful integration of technology to students who lacked it.

Between April and September 2020, the percentage of adults who reported computers were always or usually available to their children for educational purposes rose from 88 to 91 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. School districts and states are tackling a lack of home internet connectivity for students across the country, and the federal government has made funding available for this purpose.

Despite the progress that’s been made in providing devices and internet access to students, the need for digital equity persists. To find out more about the changes that are still needed and what the future of digital equity in K–12 schools should look like, we spoke with four experts: Shaina Glass, professional learning manager at the Computer Science Teachers Association; Melissa Lim, technology integration specialist at Portland Public Schools in Oregon; Michael McCormick, superintendent of Val Verde Unified School District in California; and Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of Teach For America. Here’s what they shared:

EDTECH: How would you define digital equity as it pertains to K–12 education?

Lim: When people talk about digital equity, they’re talking about access to technology. I would also say that it relates to teaching experience in terms of teachers’ technology skills. It’s providing teachers with professional learning and skills, so all students have equitable learning experiences.

Villanueva Beard: I would define digital equity as ensuring that every child has the opportunity to access content around the world. The other part in terms of equity is ensuring that the tools and the content that kids have access to are designed with an equity lens.

Glass: It’s not just access as in the actual tool, but also resources to reach students who have different disabilities. All of that plays into the definition of digital equity.

McCormick: It includes the foundational needs such as hardware, internet connection, and access to online resources, and also access to teachers, mentors and coaches who can provide the context and the guidance so students can learn how to interact in a positive, productive and safe way across the internet. I think at the highest level what it means is that our students are able to pursue their passions and work toward projects that improve the world and make it a better place.

EDTECH: What does the future of digital equity look like? Is it achievable?

Glass: Digital equity is absolutely achievable with certain frameworks in place. You need to have the correct mindset from administration, which should partner with educational organizations that can help create a framework for digital equity. When you work with organizations that can help you create the foundation and come up with goals to make sure that you’re providing access and that you understand the different components that go with that, then you’ll be successful in your rollout and your implementation.

McCormick: There are three main buckets we need to consider when we think about achieving equity. The first bucket is hardware, infrastructure, staffing and professional development. The next is paradigm shifting and working with multiple generations of educators and staff members to see the promise of technology. And then the third is learning how to put all the pieces together. Technology should be treated as a tool or a resource that kids and adults use to accomplish some other mission.

Villanueva Beard: I would say it has to be, yes. Right now, many high schools don’t have access, and it’s disproportionately worse for kids in low-income communities. Digital assets are just a tool, whereas educating our children is a deeply human experience. The solutions are within our communities; the wisdom is there.

Lim: It definitely will take a paradigm shift: Use technology intentionally. Make it a part of your instruction and your curriculum, and use it as it best serves the students’ needs. Take everything you’ve learned and apply it.

EDTECH: What are some of the biggest roadblocks to digital equity?

McCormick: I think a lot of it is mindset. There’s a lot of discussion about limiting screen time and digital citizenship and fear of not having human contact like we used to have.

Villanueva Beard: I think one of the biggest challenges is that there are parts of the country that literally don’t have the infrastructure for connectivity. And second, solutions are going to be coming from all directions. Everyone’s drinking from a fire hose. You have to slow down enough to ask the critical questions and prioritize solutions that are being developed from the ground up that are user centered.

Lim: A lot of families don’t necessarily know how to use a mouse because they’re always using their mobile phone. If their mobile phone is their main device for accessing the internet, they don’t know what a mouse is. If you’re from another country, that can be another barrier. It would be great if we talked about family education in partnership with the schools because the levels of technology use are so different.

Glass: The lack of knowledge is causing issues in digital equity. You can’t be oblivious. There must be direct, implicit professional learning to show teachers what “have” and “have not” actually means and have them look at students deeper than just the body sitting in that seat.

EDTECH: What goals can educators and district leaders set in today’s world to work toward digital equity?

Glass: The administrators must first create the framework with the IT department. Come up with a plan where you set a three-year goal of the layers of implementation. District administrators can create a focus group with various campus administrators by grade level, because everybody has different needs.

Lim: There needs to be more of a roadmap or vision on how to put the pieces together. Now that we have equipment, what’s the plan to keep things sustainable so everybody gets what they need? Clearly lay out expectations for teachers so they know where they should focus their goal setting and in what areas should they be doing continuous learning.

McCormick: The first goal is access, and that’s where the funding comes in. The second goal is, how do you begin to think about creating spaces for individualization and personalization of technology tools for students? Then, the final phase is, how are you creating a culture of innovation across the district, where students are encouraged to use the tools of technology for communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity? That, to me, is why we should invest so heavily, not only in the devices and in the infrastructure, but also in professional development for our staff and our educators.

Villanueva Beard: We need to ensure that we’re really supporting teachers and that they get high-quality professional development on how to use the tool, how to access it and have it do the work that it’s intended to do.

EDTECH: What resources are needed to make progress toward digital equity?

McCormick: We should think about internet connectivity like any other utility. Our students have learned how to be creative problem-solvers, but I really feel like the next step is to get guaranteed high-speed, high-quality internet into all of our students’ homes.

Villanueva Beard: Only about 37 percent of high schools offer computer science, and it’s worse in low-income communities because you don’t have enough teachers who can teach it. In our upper middle-class communities, kids are getting access to coding and computer science and AI, and all of that has to be integrated into our schools as part of core curriculum.

Lim: An initiative like Future Ready, something like that at a national level, is really helpful because it gives you a set of standards. It gives you the framework. There were a lot of resources for it, and they were doing workshops all across the country, and so a targeted effort like that is really helpful.

Glass: Every state is different, but we have regional educational service centers where you can find various resources, as in the actual programs that you can implement, the professional learning opportunities, possibly funding or support for grant funding. I really hope that school districts take this opportunity to look forward and maybe set structures in place.

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