Systemic Digital Equity
The National Collaborative is committed to developing, researching and scaling a systemic approach to digital equity. It makes no sense in the digital age to invest in economic development initiatives in high poverty communities without full integration of digital equity measures. Equally, what value are “cheap boxes and wires” for low-income learners, families, communities and wage earners if these resources aren’t tied deliberately and thoughtfully to concurrent efforts to open up pathways to STEM and other living wage careers?
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Digital equity in itself will not result in significant improvements in quality of life unless tightly linked by diverse local leaders to corresponding efforts to dramatically improve educational and economic opportunity, health outcomes and other key social impacts.
Therefore, systemic digital equity investments include sustained attention to at least the following essential dimensions:
Broadband: This is arguably the single most essential “food group” in digital equity, along with access to devices. There are a small but growing number of cable and wireless Internet providers who offer increasingly discounted broadband for low-income learners and families.
Of special importance, we believe, is not only helping individuals gain affordable access to broadband, but also helping diverse communities become fully “Broadband Ready for Systemic Inclusion”. Our commitment is to expand upon the Broadband Ready notion of assisting a community to hold sustained, inclusive conversations to prepare themselves to take fullest possible advantage of new broadband access for civic engagement, telemedicine, educational and economic opportunity, and other vitally important social goods. Our aim is to go beyond “strands” of social benefits, no matter how valuable they each might be, to foster integrated community efforts that thoughtfully lift LMI learners of all ages actually out of poverty.
Computing Devices: Along with broadband, access to devices that include a keyboard are another essential resource. Keyboards are crucial for such vital purposes as writing essays, writing code, completing loan and job applications, seeking access to capital and credit, and civic engagement in an increasingly digital world.
Multilingual Tech Support: 25 years of experience in infusing technology into PK-12 education and educator preparation has taught the world’s education technology integration leaders that even full 24/7 access to the Internet and devices will not ensure robust, personally meaningful and educationally and economically productive use without sustained, personalized tech support and training. Such support needs to be multilingual to ensure that linguistic and cultural barriers do not render Web and device access worthless. There are proven, scaled nonprofit programs ready to assist additional communities to develop self-sustaining programs that equip linguistically diverse youths with the skills to provide tech support (and prepare them with very promising living wage careers in the process).
Educational and Productivity Apps: Educational and productivity software (“apps”) are proliferating. There are stellar nonprofit initiatives that are engaging tens of thousands of educators and end users in “curating” databases of highly rated free and low-cost apps, searchable by learner’s age/grade level (from cradle to senior citizen), subject area, platform (Android, Windows, Apple, etc.) and cost. Knowledge of these resources is invaluable to assist learners to make full use of their technology resources and connectivity.
Open and Deep Web Educational Content: The best content is not always easy to find with a Google, Bing, Siri or Yahoo search. Several stellar nonprofit initiatives curate “open” (free) educational resources, making them searchable by topic, learner’s age/grade level, and subject. Equally, there is a small but growing number of public-private partnerships to pool the buying power of growing numbers of learners in order to drive down the cost of unlimited access to exemplary fee-based, “Deep Web” educational content (e.g., vast databases of full text academic journals, e-books and periodicals). Both the open and Deep Web co-op strategies offer great promise for ensuring that all learners enjoy equitable access to stellar learning materials.
Libraries and Librarians: Librarians are perhaps the single most important profession of the digital age. Their training, expertise and desire to serve as guides to all aspects of digital content and tools make them incomparable partners and leaders in a community’s efforts to make sure that all user’ most pressing needs for relevant, trustworthy information are met.
E-Learning Pedagogy: The need to grow capacity in LMI communities and among parents and educators to ensure that LMI learners have successful online learning experiences has been underscored dramatically by the Covid-19 pandemic. As schools and colleges closed and went suddenly, en masse, to online learning, it became clear that many educators and parents lacked the skills needed to assist their students to successfully learn online. Educators and parents — when considering younger LMI learners — need support to grow their expertise and repertoire of instructional strategies.
Cybersafety and Social Network/Device Addiction Mitigation: Equitable access is, of course, at the heart of any conception of digital equity. Yet, we know more than enough to realize that risks accompany greater access, and that learners of all ages need support to anticipate, minimize and hopefully prevent threats relating to data privacy, stolen identity, cyberbullying, ransomware, and cybercrime generally.
Literacy Skill Development Support: Achieving full digital equity across all these dimensions is achievable and imperative for economic and educational opportunity, but means little if the learner has limited literacy skills. In our view, systemic digital equity has not been realized without the ability to read and navigate digital content.
Universal Design for Learning, especially for those with Hearing, Visual and Physical Impairments: the needs of those with impairments that impede access to and engagement with digital resources must be addressed as well, through a range of tools and strategies such as headsets, assistive devices, free speech-to-text and text-to-speech apps, and training and user support in how to tap and employ them.
Tools for Visual Learners: Many learners, whether due to cognitive preferences or impairments, benefit greatly from tools that enable them to learn from as well as communicate their own ideas visually. “Idea mapping” tools like Inspiration and Kidspiration are important for their full inclusion.
Voice and Agency: The spirit in which these supports are provided is as crucial as the supports themselves. To the extent that the approach of the digital equity resource provider to the learner is not respectful and culturally responsive, and if the core purpose is anything less than empowerment of the underserved, to that same extent the value of even greatly improved digital access will be diminished. NCDE urges that digital equity initiatives be owned and shaped by those who otherwise have lacked voice and agency.
Evaluation: To ensure that local systemic digital equity efforts are effective, local decision makers need to fully incorporate investments in robust, ongoing formative evaluation, to garner promising and proven practices, inform our decisions, celebrate our successes, and keep our “eyes on the prize” of moving the dials that matter, in terms of educational and economic opportunity, civic engagement and community vitality and self-determination.
Through our Operation Lemonade initiative, we’re mobilizing funders to support sustained investments in systemic digital equity in lower-income communities, well-informed and led by networks and organizations of the under-represented.