The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many existing inequalities, with an oversized impact on marginalized people, people of color, people with disabilities, those experiencing housing or food insecurity, and more. It has also widened disparities in access to technology, especially when it comes to education. The switch to virtual education has isolated students with unreliable technology. In many rural areas, families live without reliable internet access, making virtual education even more challenging. Let’s explore the dynamics of digital inequity and what we can do to fix this growing problem.
Digital equity means making sure that all students have access to the technology they need to succeed. This means identifying when students have limited access to technology, whether at school or at home, and helping them secure reliable technology. But digital equity isn’t limited to things like laptops or internet access. It also means ensuring that students have opportunities to learn and practice technology-related skills.
The digital equity movement is a response to ongoing disparities in technology access for students across the country. This inequality of technology access is sometimes called the digital divide, meaning the divide between those with access to technology and those without. Because our economy increasingly relies on this technology, the digital divide can worsen other existing systemic inequalities, such as socio-economic and racial oppression. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital divide became more visible than ever. With many students learning virtually during the 2020-21 school year, difficulties multiplied for those without reliable internet access or electronic devices. Many students, particularly those in rural areas, struggled to attend their virtual lessons at all.
Digital equity programs help ensure that today’s students have access to the technology they need to engage with their education, their career, and the economy. One step that schools have recently taken to advance digital equity is the implementation of 1:1 technology programs. This means that schools set a goal to provide each of their students with technology they can use to complete homework assignments or projects at home.
Digital equity is also important because it plays a role in social-emotional learning, or SEL. Social-emotional learning is the process by which students learn how to live a balanced, fulfilling, and emotionally healthy life. A valuable part of SEL is having one’s needs recognized and met— this includes acknowledging each student’s unique challenges, privileges, background, and the barriers they face. Schools are, of course, responsible for the academic and professional success of their students, but perhaps equally as important, they help students develop the sense of self they need to forge their own path.
If you’d like to learn more about how to incorporate social-emotional learning in your classroom to support digital equity, you can check out our SEL lesson plan here. The activity pack explains how you can use Unruly Splats, our coding and play technology, to teach kids to code while developing social and emotional skills.
Digital equity supports academic success. Schools and teachers are relying more and more on technology like digital homework programs, iPads, and internet access for students to complete homework and schoolwork. But technology doesn’t just help students access necessary school programs. It also opens up a world of possibilities to explore. With technology, students can test out new career fields, delve into topics of interest, and experiment with all the tools at their disposal. To succeed academically, students need not only the skills to acquire and retain knowledge, but also the curiosity and tenacity to see things through.
Engaging with technology in the classroom also promotes much-needed life skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork. For example, Michael Fricano, a K-6 Technology Integration Specialist challenges his grade 1 students to code a countdown timer for a fitness activity. This not only introduces them to the basics of coding but also challenges them to explore the different coding blocks to see what works and what does not. One student was having trouble coding a delay into her timer. Mr. Fricano was busy helping another student so he told her to see if she could figure it out and he would come by later. Five minutes later, she had figured it out all on her own and was teaching the rest of the class about her findings!
“Typically a student will just move on if they can’t figure it out, but five minutes later, I hear ‘Mr. Fricano, I think I figured it out!’. She showed the rest of the class how she did it and then a lot of the other students incorporated it into their games. She was so proud that she did it herself”.
Children need play to support their physical, social, and emotional development. Play reduces stress and enhances students’ social skills and problem solving. But it can also bolster digital equity and academic success by keeping kids engaged in the learning process. In one of our recent panels, experts in K-12 education told us how play can help address inequalities at school.
“[Students] need engagement so [they] can academically achieve,” said Alexa Sorden, founding principal of CVES. “When engagement isn’t there, that is when those inequities show up… because the academic gap widens.”
The first step to combating digital inequity is understanding what your students are dealing with.
Check in with your students and/or their parents; ask them what they need that they don’t have access to. Alexa Sorden, a principal in the Bronx uses weekly text surveys to check in with families on their needs.
Make sure you have a keen understanding of exactly what technology you’re expecting your students to have access to in order to complete lessons and projects.
Focus on choosing technology that is broadly accessible and easy to learn & use. Remember that not everyone engages with technology in the same way.
As much as possible, stay attuned to your students’ struggles. Keep in mind that their circumstances might change part of the way through the school year. Parents lose their jobs; electronics break and can’t be replaced. If you can, maintain flexible due dates for homework and projects that require significant digital engagement.
With time and effort, we can eliminate digital inequity and ensure all students have access to quality technology so that they can learn the digital skills they will need for the changing face of work. Keeping students engaged in the learning process is a complex matter. Using a combination of play and digital technology, students can grow their skills and adapt for tomorrow’s challenges.