Classroom Technology

Digital Equity Isn’t Just About Devices and Internet Access

By Lauraine Langreo — July 24, 2023 3 min read
Photo of African-American boy working on laptop computer at home.
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The overall number of ed-tech tools school districts are using is increasing, and more districts have 1-to-1 computing programs. And yet, equitable technology access for all students still isn’t a reality.

The problem, according to Camille Cole, a digital teaching and learning specialist for the Canyons School District in Utah, is that districts don’t always think beyond students’ access to digital devices and the internet.

“When it comes to bridging the digital divide, if our teachers can’t provide meaningful learning experiences, it doesn’t matter if kids can connect,” Cole said during a presentation at the International Society for Technology in Education conference in June. “It really isn’t just enough to have those physical devices and access to the broadband or the internet.”

There are four components of equitable access to technology, according to Cole, who co-wrote a research study on the response of state education and district leaders in Utah to the digital divide during the COVID-19 remote learning. If your school district has all four components, then “you’re bridging that digital divide,” she said.

1. Motivation and positive attitude

Without motivation and positive attitudes toward educational technology, educators will encounter resistance to the technology’s acquisition and use, according to Cole, whose district is located south of Salt Lake City.

During the early parts of the pandemic, at the start of emergency remote learning, many school leaders found that a number of students were not showing up to online classes, even if they had the digital device and internet connection needed. Many teachers whom Cole and her colleagues talked to for their research attributed that disengagement to students’ lack of motivation or positive attitudes about learning online.

So how can educators get students motivated? It’s important to have positive teacher-student relationships, along with student-to-student interactions, Cole said.

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Illustration by Chris Whetzel for Education Week

2. Physical access

The second component is physical access, meaning having the requisite devices and Wi-Fi connections in school and at home. Without physical access to ed tech, students might not be able to complete many assignments and participate in the learning in which their classmates are taking part, Cole said.

When thinking about this component, school districts should consider what works best for their students and community, Cole said. For example, in some areas, mobile hotspots might not be a good solution for bringing Wi-Fi access into students’ homes because they’re dependent on whether a location has access to the cellular networks needed for connection.

3. Digital skills

Without the skills needed to use the digital device, students might develop anxiety surrounding the technology, Cole said. For example, some districts in Utah gave kindergarten and 1st grade students Chromebooks to take home during remote learning, but those students didn’t have the digital skills to use them because they had never used a laptop before.

“Don’t just assume your students will know how to use those devices or those programs,” Cole said. “There’s always the assumption—and I had it as well—that kids are tech savvy. They can figure it out.”

Students can probably figure some things out, but educators should make sure students know what’s expected of them and that they know how to use their device correctly, she added.

To improve students’ digital skills, it’s helpful to stick with a few devices and programs that students can master and get comfortable with, Cole said.

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Maddi Dale focuses on her remote French class in her bedroom in Lake Oswego, Ore., Oct. 30, 2020.
Broadband and connected devices have become must-haves for academic success as schools have expanded their use of technology.
Sara Cline/AP

4. Consistent tools

Cole and her colleagues also found that having districtwide usage of one consistent learning platform, appropriate learning tools, and best practices for blended and online learning is required for ensuring effective use of technology.

For Cole’s district, “having one learning management system has been a great benefit, because we have consistency across K-12,” she said.

Parents with children in different grade levels or at different school buildings don’t have to learn different tools, so consistency makes it easier for them to check on their students’ learning.

District leaders should provide guidance and best practices to ensure consistency and coherence across classrooms and grade levels, but it shouldn’t be so limiting that teachers don’t have room to do what’s best for their students, Cole said.

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