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National Ed-Tech Plan Outlines How Schools Can Tackle 3 Big Digital Inequities

Education technology has become central to teaching and learning in school districts across the country. But there are still big inequities in access to devices and broadband, and some districts are using technology much more effectively than others, concludes a national ed-tech plan released on Jan. 22 by the U.S. Department of Education.

Specifically, the education department’s blueprint for the nation’s ed-tech priorites, sees three big digital equity divides. They include:

  • The digital access divide, which refers to the gaps in access to devices and high-speed internet, as well as lessons in digital citizenship and media literacy.
  • The digital design divide, which refers to the differences among teachers in understanding how to effectively use technology to meet students’ needs.
  • And the digital use divide, which refers to the variance in how schools use technology to engage students and teach critical thinking skills.

“It’s essential we focus on empowering teachers to become designers of active learning, using technology in effective ways to engage and inspire students,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a statement about the plan.

The National Education Technology Plan was last updated in 2016, before the pandemic catapulted school districts’ reliance on education technology to deliver lessons.

The report includes recommendations for school districts, state officials, and policymakers on how to improve in each of the three areas of digital inequities.

For instance, to use digital tools more effectively, the report recommends that educators steer away from using devices simply to show videos or allow students to email their teacher with a question. Instead, they should strive to use technology to help students collaborate on projects, learn to code, or to create their own podcasts.

To improve “digital design” or ensure educators are making the most of technology, districts should carefully vet tech platforms before they purchase them. Once a district has purchased a tool, they should continually evaluate it, including by seeking feedback directly from teachers, the report says.

To bolster access to digital tools, the report recommends that districts form public-private partnerships to ensure students have access to high- speed internet and integrate skills like digital safety and media literacy across the curriculum.

Joseph South, the chief innovation officer for the International Society for Technology in Education, praised the report’s focus on educators’ skills.

“It’s great to see the increased emphasis on ensuring that ed tech works for educators in addition to students,” he said. “We need solutions that are both teacher ready and student ready.”

‘Every brain is as different as a fingerprint’

The report places a big emphasis on how technology can help districts offer universal design for learning, or UDL, to all students. UDL is a strategy that encompasses a wide set of teaching techniques, allowing multiple ways for teachers to present information and for students to engage in lessons and demonstrate what they know.

UDL began as an approach to special education but has since branched into general education as it has become increasingly clear that all students—not just those who receive special education services—have their own unique ways of learning, experts say.

The report recommends that educators be given training in how to use technology to make their content engaging and accessible for students with a wide range of learning differences. The report also suggests that school officials model UDL principles in their interactions with teachers, including in staff meetings, and provide time for educators to discuss the techniques in a meaningful way.

The department outlined how to support children in special education using digital devices, in guidance released alongside the report.

UDL is mentioned on 74 pages of the 113-page report, according to Lindsay Jones, the CEO of CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization that created the Universal Design for Learning framework.

“We have an opportunity with technology embedded appropriately, in education systems, to create dynamic, flexible learning environments for students, because they don’t all learn the same,” Jones said. “It’s not just kids with disabilities that learn differently. It’s not just English learners. The reality for the teacher is that every brain in their classroom is as different as a fingerprint.”

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