Equity for Digital-Age Learning: Education Leaders Address New Challenges in North Carolina Schools

Introduction

Digital inequities—or the divide amongst students who have and do not have access to digital resources —has become a national concern among K-12 educators in recent years. Research has documented the impacts of differential access to technology, however, as many districts and schools across the country move closer to fully transitioning to digital-age learning, digital inequity among K-12 students has become a more salient concern.

In response to the growing relevance of digital equity, President Barack Obama announced the ConnectED initiative in June 2013 designed to enrich K-12 education for every student in the United States. ConnectED has three main foci: 1. Upgrading connectivity in schools and libraries; 2. Improving the skills of teachers on using education technology tools to improve student learning; and 3. Encouraging private sector innovation among leading technology companies to produce feature-rich educational devices that are price-competitive with basic textbooks. Coupled with that work are federal reform efforts from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expand the Lifeline Program[1] and to adopt the E-rate Modernization Order, which takes action toward: 1. Ensuring affordable access to high-speed broadband sufficient to support digital learning in schools and robust connectivity for all libraries; 2. Maximizing the cost-effectiveness of spending for E-rate supported purchases; and 3. Making the E-rate application process and other E-rate processes fast, simple and efficient. Combined, these landmark federal policy initiatives shed light on digital equity as a national K-12 education challenge. They also provide a streamlined approach to improving Wi-Fi networks in schools and a method for expanding the financial support needed to improve internet access for low-income families across America.

Despite federal policy gains, much more work remains to be done at the state level to address the inequities that impact K-12 students’ abilities to fully engage in digital-age learning. Variations in funding, policy, computer and internet access are a few of the factors that impact digital inequity differently at the state level. This white paper discusses digital equity challenges among North Carolina students as identified by a group of education stakeholders at the Redefining Equity for Digital-Age Learning Convening and offers potential solutions to mitigate those challenges. The convening served as the inaugural event to launch a dynamic partnership among the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, the North Carolina State Board of Education, Department of Public Instruction, and the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. The event brought together more than 100 education stakeholders in a collaborative effort to identify challenges to digital equity that impact North Carolina K-12 students. Working groups discussed five key areas, highlighted major barriers and identified potential solutions. Not surprisingly, lack of funding, outdated professional development strategies, and an unclear understanding of the value for digital-age learning were among the major barriers discussed. Recommendations to address those barriers called for increased collaboration across education levels (e.g., schools, districts and state agencies), more financial support from the state legislature and buy in among all education stakeholders (e.g., parents, the local business community, educators and government).

 

  1. The federal Lifeline Program for Low Income Consumers was created in 1985 as a part of the Universal Service Fund to provide discount on phone service for qualifying low-income consumers to ensure that all Americans have the opportunities and security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family and emergency services. The program was revised on March 31, 2016 to include broadband services.

 

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