Revised Federal Edtech Plan Calls for Closing Digital Divides

Digital Access

Revised Federal Edtech Plan Calls for Closing Digital Divides

But will funding gaps and inadequate development defer hopes for inclusive education?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Feb 26, 2024

Revised Federal Edtech Plan Calls for Closing Digital Divides

When the federal government released its revised edtech plan last month, it was laying down its hope for a future that delivers on effective instruction for students.

The plan was first released to fulfill the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 and last revised in 2016. January’s update was published alongside guidance concerning the use of technology for helping students with disabilities. These reports, some observers believe, mark a thoughtful step toward ensuring digital equity.

To some, the update was overdue.

This is one of the first documents that really gives schools a roadmap for looking at their technology systems as a whole, says Lindsay Jones, the chief executive officer of CAST, a nonprofit that advocates for equitable learning conditions.

It’s intensified the long-standing desire to deliver a truly inclusive education system. But with evaporating funds, will those hopes be dashed or delayed?

‘Islands of Innovation’

In some ways, observers say, the update was responding to the booster shot the pandemic gave to technology in schools. While the emergency switch to remote instruction caused students to fall behind in learning — with regular assessments showing declining test scores, especially in math — it also significantly sped up the adoption of digital devices and impressed upon districts the importance of technology, according to advocates.

The U.S. Department of Education 2024 National Educational Technology Plan really sets forth an aspirational vision for how technology could transform learning, says Keith Krueger, CEO of the nonprofit the Consortium for School Networking. The plan separates technological divides — barriers that block some students from full participation — into access, design and use.

The latest iteration is more focused on use and design, which emphasize how these technologies are used within schools. In addition to highlighting examples of what officials see as effective programs, the report suggests that states appoint edtech directors, create digital equity plans and assess how the technology is currently being used in their schools.

Unlike this latest one, previous versions of the plan have seemed to separate out technology as a component of the education system rather than a pervasive part of students’ lives, Jones, of CAST, says.

“It’s a mindset shift we need in education right now,” Jones says.

In a way, it’s a shift to recognize another aspect of the digital divide in America: the quality divide when it comes to implementation of edtech, which arises because all this new technology isn’t necessarily being put to the best use in classrooms.

Ultimately, some hope this plan will move the conversation beyond what access students have to tech and toward discussion about how effective that tech actually is in learning. After all, schools have seen a rush of new devices and tools in the past few years, especially since the pandemic forced so much remote learning. But getting devices into students' hands is just one step in lifting education in the digital age.

Even still, receding funds threaten to push schools backward.

Despite significant gains across the country in getting devices into the hands of every student and stable internet into their schools and homes, not everyone has access. And these disparities spill over: The same families that can’t get online to learn also don’t have the connectivity for telehealth care or for finding work, according to Krueger.

Worse, the funding is lapsing.

The Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which connects low-income families to the internet, is out of funds. The program stopped taking new applicants earlier this month. And without more funding from Congress, the program warned that millions of families could lose internet access in April.

There are some attempts to plug the cavernous hole that would leave in funding broadband advances. For example, on a smaller scale, the FCC is looking to enable schools to use its E-rate program to purchase hotspots and devices, Krueger says. But there isn’t one magic bullet, he adds: The more that schools work within their communities, the more they’ll be able to use a myriad of programs in order to connect families to reliable internet.

There are also other troubles. For example, schools purchased many devices with temporary funds during the pandemic, but now many officials are unsure whether they will have the cash to replace them.

Another challenge: whether teachers are supported. It’s crucial to make sure that teachers have enough professional development to understand how to powerfully use technology, in ways that are creative and that push students to collaborate, Krueger says.

There is no shortage of individual teachers doing a wonderful job using technology, Krueger adds. What’s lacking is a system where it doesn't matter which class you're in, or which teacher you got, or what school you attend, he says, adding: “We need to move beyond those islands of innovation to where there's a system that is innovative and has an expectation for every student.”

Educators may not have learned how to use technology to make curriculum engaging and to enhance students’ learning from their teacher prep programs, Jones, of CAST, says: “And we need to address that as a real issue.”

The focus on designing education for all students in the classroom and real examples of technology use in the report are critical for meeting this challenge, Jones says.

‘Last 10 Miles’

Even with these challenges, some advocates remain optimistic.

“I feel like we’re all running this marathon,” says An-Me Chung, the director of teaching, learning and tech at New America and strategic advisor to the organization’s education policy program. The country has increased broadband and device access in the country, though some segments — like low-income families, and rural, mountainous and tribal areas — have continued to fall through the cracks, she says. But the steps have stacked up, and universal broadband access is within reach, she says, adding, “If we’re running a marathon, I would say we're in the last 10 miles.”

If edtech is used and supported correctly, this can expand the number of students who receive a truly high-quality education, Chung argues.

Ultimately, this will require schools to work more collaboratively with their communities, Chung says. For example, the pandemic strengthened relationships between schools and libraries, which had to partner in order to provide students with devices and hotspots, or to enhance instruction when schools were closed, she says. Other digital equity activists have also pointed out that providing stable access to the internet will mean schools working closely with community programs to make sure that connection is available both within and outside of school walls.

These sorts of broad systemic changes can be slow and incremental, according to Chung.

The challenge is to keep technology from becoming just another divide that separates students, Krueger, of COSN, says.

“We’re at a really critical moment,” he says. “Are we going to backslide?”

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up