Communities across the country were shocked by the COVID-19 pandemic’s revelation of the digital divide facing America’s students. The U.S. Department of Education has released new guidance to help local school districts close the gap.
As kids around the nation turned to virtual and hybrid learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing became clear: some of the country’s kids lacked the necessary access to reliable, quality internet to participate in digital schooling. The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) has released guidance to help states and local education agencies (LEAs) tackle that gap and close the “digital divide.”
The USDE’s Office of Educatio Technology in September released a 57 page guide titled, “Advancing Digital Equity for All: Community-Based Recommendations for Developing Effective Digital Equity Plans to Close the Digital Divide and Enable Technology-Empowered Learning.”
The guide defines digital equity as “The condition in which individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States.”
The breadth and depth of the problem
USDE found dozens of common barriers impeding digital learning around the country. The Department categorized them into three umbrellas: availability, affordability, and adoption.
Guidance to improve the digital divide
Corresponding to the three umbrellas of barriers, USDE has offered a series of potential solutions to address them. Suggested strategies include partnering with private internet service providers to improve equitable broadband infrastructure and using public spaces and community partnerships to create more internet access — such as using parks and recreational facilities as “hotspots.” Additionally, USDE suggests that ongoing federal, state, or local funding be used to help LEAs buy equipment and provide affordable internet access and digital literacy programs.
USDE also identified key steps education leaders can take in their digital equity planning efforts to ensure access for all learners:
- Develop and earn public trust through partnerships.
- Learn from those impacted by inequitable access and provide opportunities for feedback.
- Co-develop clear goals and strategies with communities to craft a comprehensive digital equity plan.
- Raise public awareness and provide ongoing support for low- or no-cost broadband programs.
- Provide digital literacy training and professional learning opportunities.
The guide also includes a suggestion that LEAs work directly with community members and leaders to formulate goals and strategies to close the local digital divide. In doing so, the guide said it can help address an overall lack of trust in the government or private companies that often exacerbates barriers to access.
Maryland as a case study
USDE used a Maryland program as a case study on successful local government programs addressing digital equity for refugees and migrants. The program was a successful partnership between the State and an advocacy group.
During the pandemic, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) sought to strengthen partnerships between refugee resettlement networks and organizations promoting digital equity. In the fall of 2020, MPI partnered with the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees (MORA) to increase digital access and adoption among refugee communities. MPI delivered technical assistance over a series of four sessions to MORA and its newly established Maryland Digital Work Group, which included participation from four local resettlement agencies. Together, they developed a multi-pronged approach to increase refugees’ access to devices, the internet, and digital skills training in languages used by the local refugee population in Maryland.