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Technology has been a lifesaver for many industries during the pandemic—the education industry has been no exception. Schools around the country have been able to continue teaching students thanks to technology that allows interaction and structure. But while technology has been integral to the continuation of learning in remote and hybrid settings, digital/tech equity remains an issue for K12 students and teachers. Although many districts have resumed in-person instruction, continuing COVID disruptions and new choices for remote learning mean the issue is still in play. 

This can be an issue for both students and teachers. Even after the pandemic, it is believed to be likely that some level of remote and hybrid learning will continue. The challenge: ensuring digital equity to drive desired outcomes. 

As Wiley Brazier, an award-winning veteran educator writes for EdTech: “Tech integration will still be important as schools navigate blended, hybrid and virtual learning in new ways. Teachers’ technology integration skills may be even more important, as schools work to equitably provide access to new and more robust technologies.” 

Digital equity in education can relate both to having access to devices and bandwidth, as well as to disparities in comfort level with technology.  

Digital Equity In Education Starts With Devices and Bandwidth

“The pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders exposed a glaring inequity in access to high-speed internet in the home, with over 17 million students facing challenges accessing reliable high-speed internet across the country,” says Alex DerHovhannessian, vice president of services at Qlarion, a GCOM company. “The consequence of limited internet access on a child’s education is significant,” he says. “Last year students struggled with failing grades while unprecedented numbers simply disappeared from classes.” Progress has been made, he says, but there is still work to be done. 

If there’s any solace to be taken from the situation many in K12 school systems find themselves in, it’s that they’re not in it alone. Teachers, students and families across the country are experiencing the same challenges. 

Why Is Digital Equity Important? Who Is Impacted? Statistics That Show The Struggle

Surveys conducted by DonorsChoose in winter (1100 teachers responding) and summer (482 teachers responding) 2021 found that:

  • Over 25% of teachers at schools in low-income communities said that 10 or more of their students lacked reliable internet access, compared to 14% of teachers at schools in more affluent communities.
  • Teachers across all communities named lack of reliable internet access, family support responsibilities, and lack of social interaction with classmates and teachers as the top three challenges their students faced, but internet challenges were ranked highest among teachers from schools in low-income communities.
  • Teachers at schools in low-income communities were more likely to report that they were providing all instruction via remote learning, compared to teachers at schools in more affluent communities.
  • Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students and students from low-income communities were more likely to be learning remotely. 

Beth McCarter taught for six years in Texas before leaving during the pandemic. She now teaches online as a contractor and writes a travel blog. Digital equity has definitely been an issue in rural Texas, says McCarter, due to both lack of devices and lack of access to wi-fi. While schools provided a small Chrome book to each family and offered wi-fi in school parking lots, that wasn’t enough to address the need, she says. “This did not combat the issue that most families had several children in school, and each of them needed to use a device,” she says. 

Low-income students and families have been most impacted, says Tonya Mead, a PhD level contract school-based psychologist, and president of Shared Knowledge, LLC, with almost 20 years of experience working in Title I high poverty schools in the DC metro area and Ohio Valley region. Lack of internet access and computer availability make it difficult for students to access remote learning platforms, she says. In addition, she says, “students with poor organizational skills and/or inadequate computer word processing skills” were particularly disadvantaged as they attempted to learn new material while also having to navigate and master remote learning platforms. “Many became overwhelmed and stopped participating in the virtual settings altogether,” she says. 

But access to technology isn’t the only area of digital inequity. Another is a lack of education and experience with the technology on the part of many students, teachers, and parents. 

Digital Equity In Education Involves Everyone: Students, Family, and Instructors

McCarter says that “a general lack of technological education” is a problem facing many school districts. “Many kids’ parents didn’t know how to check their emails let alone help their students use Zoom,” she says, adding that many teachers were also uncomfortable with technology. 

Mead agrees, noting that teachers’ challenges aren’t only related to their own lack of familiarity or experience with technology. Teachers, says Mead, have spent an “excessive amount of time tutoring students on platform features and responding to student emails about platform FAQs.” This, she says, reduced the amount of time available for lesson planning. 

They’re not the only ones feeling the pinch. Many parents have also been challenged by the sudden need to participate in their children’s online learning efforts. 

Joseph Urban, an education attorney with Clark Hill says: “Failure to account for the proficiency of the adults in the home with technology means that the technology may be delivered to the hands of the children, who may be proficient, but what happens when the adults are not proficient?” For instance, he asks: “How will the technology be troubleshot if there is a malfunction? How do the adults in the home assess the best practices for online behavior of their children to keep them safe and out of troubling web-based communities?” Developers of online curriculum, Urban says, “must take parental proficiency in these areas into account. 

Lessons Learned And The Road Ahead

Over the past several months, of course, there have been improvements and students, parents, and teachers have all learned more about how to navigate the online learning experience. There are, of course, still opportunities for improvement; the government and other organizations are engaged in multiple efforts to improve access to funding as well as training and education. Their efforts are making a difference. 

“We’ve seen a huge difference in schools that have focused on preparing teachers to use the new technology effectively from those that have just focused on providing access to the tech,” says Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and author of Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World. “That may sound obvious, but it’s shocking how many districts have ignored the teacher readiness side and are paying the price in the lack of quality of their online and in-classroom tech use.” 

ISTE, says Culatta “has created a set of standards that have now been adopted by every state in the US and many countries around the world to identify the elements of effective teaching and learning in technology-enhanced environments.” 

With a fall school season underway amid ongoing concerns about Covid, and the need for continued distance learning in many cases, taking steps to minimize digital inequities remains a critical priority. The improvements that have been made over the last year, as well as groundbreaking legislation such as the Digital Equity Act are important steps in the right direction, but it will take concerted effort to bring digital equity to every student.