I was recently asked how I felt about the digital divide and ways I thought it could be improved. Digital equity also came up in this conversation and it became clear to me that many think those two are the same thing. If we hope to find solutions to these issues, we need to talk about why they are connected but they are not the same.
"Digital Equity means access to learning occurs when, where, and how students need it without boundaries or prejudice."- Rafranz Davis
To me, this best defines digital equity. Students need access to learning materials, which are mostly online these days, so that they can also have access to opportunity. I see amazing tools every day and I meet amazing kids who will never have the opportunity to learn from them because they don't have access.
Digital equity is a complex issue. Lifeline ( which will provide a $9.50 subsidy so that low income families can have access to broadband) is one important factor in providing a solution toward digital equity, but it was met with backlash and sparked a heated political debate. Some Internet service providers like Sprint and AT&T spoke out about their disapproval of Lifeline. There are also heavy financial issues when discussing access for all which involve access to the Internet, a device, and an expanded network within school districts. Expanding a wireless network within a school will be necessary if more students have devices and that will come at a great expense and could even mean hiring personnel to maintain the expansion.
Providing access for all is expensive and complex. Does that mean it is impossible? Absolutely not. Lifeline will make a big impact but it cannot serve as the only solution. It will require many people and many years to provide lasting solutions but one huge factor that must change is accountability. We as educators and advocates need to hold companies accountable; they hope to profit from schools and yet regularly refuse to cooperate when discussing access for our neediest families.
Another factor that must change is communication. We as educators and advocates should make an effort to communicate with families in their home language so that they understand the role they play in this issue. We also need to communicate with other educators so that we all understand the role we play in this as well. Using a common language with the same terms is crucial so that we all share an understanding of this issue and then can work to find solutions.
The digital divide absolutely is affected by digital equity but it is not the same thing. The divide is a result of inequity. As years go by and more digital tools are created, only those with access receive the benefits of those tools. The learning opportunities given to those with access are completely lost to those without access and thus, a divide occurs.
However, the digital divide is also a result of other factors including language barriers. How often are the developers of new tools creating things in languages other than English? Think of your favorite app for student engagement. Does it have versions in other languages? How often are developers making the necessary accommodations for those with hearing or vision loss? How often do developers say that other languages or other accommodations are cost prohibitive even though they are making a substantial amount of money on the existing app? I hear and see this almost every day and it is up to us to ask the right questions and demand more from them so that all our students can have the opportunity to learn.
Another factor that impacts the digital divide is bullying. Those who are regularly marginalized or picked on are experiencing the same problems online. However, because of the anonymous nature of many online environments, the online bullying can take drastic and dangerous forms. What often ends up happening is those who get bullied pull themselves away from online environments. It seems backwards to say, but the truth is that the digital divide is getting wider because marginalized people are voluntarily pulling away. Look at the number of STEM degrees for women and how they are on the decline. Look at the number of women leaving sites like Twitter because their abuse complaints go unanswered.
The issue of digital equity is enormous. The factors impacting the digital divide grow every day. Let's all agree to communicate more, learn more, ask more questions, and demand more for our students. One person won't have the solution but together, I know we can find one.