Who Should Solve Digital Equity?

This blog is the third in a series on digital equity from CoSN CEO Keith Krueger. Read Keith's introduction to the series here.

In the previous two blogs on digital equity, I defined today’s imperative and scoped the size of the digital equity problem. This educational challenge is where students lack digital access to do their homework outside the school campus.

Most educators and policymakers understand that equity is key to ensuring that technology narrows rather than widens achievement gaps. “Anytime, anywhere” learning has been core to the vision of education technology leaders since the Internet and laptops/mobile devices entered the classroom.

However, most of our time, focus, and resources are concentrated on at-school connections – a sensible strategy when the state of technology at-school has been severely lacking (see CoSN 2014 Infrastructure survey). 

Why such a major disconnect between our vision and our action?

Part of the reluctance by school administrators to focus on digital equity is clearly about money. With insufficient technology funding, the focus of our limited resources has remained on the classroom. However, I believe it goes beyond the financials. Most educators believe it is not their responsibility to solve the digital equity challenge. There is an implicit assumption that this is “someone else’s responsibility.”

This is a problem. Without the engagement and involvement of school leaders in a community conversation, we don’t address or create equal educational opportunity in a digital era.

A Community Conversation

Digital equity is a community problem, not strictly an education problem. That means a range of partners must be engaged to define workable solutions for each of our communities.

Unfortunately, too many educational leaders are abdicating their critical voice in this conversation. Educators have a responsibility to focus on what equal educational opportunity means in today’s digital world.

Political Allies

In places such as Nashville and Chattanooga, entire communities are defining digital equity. While the school systems in these cities are not in charge of this conversation, they are deeply involved.

In Revere (MA) and Provo (UT), the mayors and the school district superintendents have partnered to address digital equity. In Nashville, a former staffer to the mayor now helps co-lead the district’s community solutions around digital equity. In Chattanooga, the effort has been driven by The Enterprise Center, an economic development organization that works closely with the school district.  

It is clear that an engaged political leader is essential to solving digital literacy. Next Century Cities, a new effort from the Ford Foundation, focuses on getting mayors to commit their cities to lead Next Generation broadband. In less than a year, more than 100 U.S. mayors have signed on to the effort. Similarly, in Kansas City (MO), the city manager is leading the digital equity conversation. Is your school district talking to the political leadership in your community?

Business & Philanthropic Community Engagement

Engagement by the business community is also key to moving the conversation forward. Some cities are leveraging home broadband investments by Google Fiber and other telecommunications firms to ensure that all neighborhoods, especially underserved populations, benefit from these efforts. Asking the business community to step up and subsidize the lowest income households can work if you have the political muscle and relationship. This is also a great opportunity to ensure that anchor institutions, including schools and libraries, benefit from broadband connections that are being deployed in those neighborhoods.

Local nonprofit entities, such as Boston’s Tech Goes Home and its sister organization Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, are often key partners in ensuring broadband connections are properly utilized.   

Think Outside-Of-The-Box

As we connect all households – especially the poorest – to broadband, there are tremendous opportunities to bring in other community partners. We need to think creatively.

On a CoSN delegation to Uruguay, we saw how their one-to-one program, which sends a school device home, also delivers nutrition programs for mothers after the children go to bed. Are you reaching out to other agencies and nonprofits with missions to advance the health and employment of low-income families?

Digital equity is not easy to achieve; it takes conversation, political will, and shared commitment. That said, it can be and is being solved in our nation’s communities.