Barriers & Strategies
In a series of listening sessions to explore community-based solutions to digital equity, participants discussed the lack of access to reliable, high-speed broadband and technology tools for learning and its impact on learners, particularly those who need the most support and experience marginalization. These conversations considered the perspectives of those leading work to support learners of color, Native and Indigenous learners, learners from rural areas, learners from urban areas, and adult learners and higher education learners. Participants agreed that coordinated efforts to close the digital divide could help increase learner engagement and participation in everywhere, all-the-time learning.
This section presents specific barriers highlighted during the listening sessions, as well as strategies to advance digital equity in three key components of access—availability, affordability, and adoption. Several common themes were identified, offering guidance for leaders and communities as they work together to co-design and implement strategies to promote digital equity grounded in the needs and aspirations in their communities. These themes are further illustrated in a series of short case studies and listening session participant quotes. Addressing all three components of access simultaneously through a set of interconnected strategies is essential to achieving digital equity and overcoming the systemic, structural, and human-level barriers impeding equitable access.
Is There Sufficient Infrastructure and Coverage to Deliver Reliable, HighSpeed Wired or Wireless Broadband Service and Technology Tools for Learning?
Availability refers to the level and sufficiency of coverage in delivering high-speed, reliable wired or wireless broadband services and sufficiency of technology tools for learning. Barriers and strategies related to availability align with typical understandings of “access,” focused on whether learners and their families/caregivers can connect to reliable, high-speed broadband through a device and the necessary physical infrastructure from home and in their communities.
Availability Barriers Within Communities
Lack of Reliable, High-Speed Broadband Connection
Participants discussed learners not having reliable, high-speed broadband available at home. Participants emphasized that when the connection is not reliable or does not perform at high enough speeds, using a variety of software for learning becomes difficult (e.g., simultaneously running a video conferencing application with the video on alongside learning applications), and multiple learners cannot use the broadband at the same time. Participants also discussed educators—including classroom teachers, support staff, pre-service educators, faculty, and adjunct faculty—not having reliable, high-speed broadband available. This was especially apparent when the educators’ instructional use from home coincided with their own child(ren)’s engagement with online learning. Participants also described challenges of mobile-only access (e.g., working on a cellular phone, using a phone as a hotspot, or using a designated hotspot device), including insufficient stability, speed, and data caps. For example, one analysis finds that broadband users consume on average, several hundred gigabytes of data every month, which can be costly (see next section on affordability barriers).76
Based on their experiences, participants believed that leaders often worked under the assumption that all families/caregivers have broadband. Such assumptions are especially damaging for those who live in poverty, learners living in rural areas, and learners who live in digitally redlined urban areas. As learners return to physical school buildings, many participants noted that some schools and districts have stopped supporting at-home internet access. This leaves many learners unable to fully engage in educators’ continued use of technology-enabled instructional methods, including for homework or on inclement weather days. Availability is also a barrier for out-of-school learning, such as online summer learning and tutoring opportunities. Finally, not having home broadband is a barrier for families/caregivers when they need to connect to school meetings and family/caregiver-educator conferences virtually.
I think that post-pandemic, the kids have gotten very comfortable with their technology…the teachers too, just being able to use [digital learning opportunities] as a part of their lesson. And so that’s the bright spot from it. But it didn’t change whether [students] would have continued [access]…versus knowing that they have access at school…I think that the teachers are even more comfortable [integrating digital learning], but sometimes are forgetting that kids may not necessarily still have access to [broadband and technology tools for learning]… And so, we’re moving on as if it’s completely done. It’s still a work in progress, but [some are] continuing to make the assumption that everybody has that access.
—Reflection from roundtable focused on learners of color
The lack of reliable, high-speed broadband connection is especially detrimental for justice-involved learners (learners who have interacted with the criminal justice system or who were incarcerated and are reintegrating into their communities), learners who are immigrants or refugees, and learners who have disabilities. Participants shared that justice-involved learners have limited connectivity and availability of devices due to cost, policy constraints, and security concerns. Participants also emphasized that many prisons are in rural or remote areas, creating geographic barriers to broadband availability. Justice-involved learners who are not supported with broadband and/or device access cannot access resources and information necessary to aid their reentry into the workforce and communities, which may impact recidivism rates. When learners who are refugees arrive in the U.S., participants highlighted that they do not always have the resources or support to set up reliable, high-speed broadband connections quickly. This limits their ability to fully engage in learning opportunities, including language development.
Digital Redlining:78 The practice of creating and perpetuating inequities between already marginalized groups specifically through the use of digital technologies, digital content, and the internet. For example, ISPs invest in building fiber infrastructure in wealthier neighborhoods while under-investing in the broadband infrastructure in low-income communities, resulting in low-income broadband users with more expensive, slower access.
Fiber-optic:79 A system that uses glass (or plastic) to carry light, which is used to transmit information. Typically, each side of the fiber is attached to a laser that sends the light signals. When the connection reaches capacity, the lasers may be upgraded to send much more information along the same strand of fiber. This technology has been used for decades and will remain the dominant method of transmitting information for the foreseeable future.
Limited data and bandwidth can also pose particular barriers for learners with disabilities. For example, learners with dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy, and other reading barriers, who typically utilize online resources to read accessible books and supplemental educational materials at school, lose access to the digital books they depend on for learning without adequate data or bandwidth at home. Additional barriers exist for learners who are deaf or hard of hearing who need to simultaneously stream videos of virtual instruction alongside interpreters, requiring smooth, reliable video transmissions to understand the lesson and fully participate.
Limited or Lack of Ownership of Personal Devices Capable of Running Learning Programs
Participants discussed barriers related to learners’ limited ownership of personal devices with the adequate specifications to run software for learning (e.g., video conferencing applications, internet browser with multiple tabs open simultaneously). Although the National Center for Education Statistics notes that over 80 percent of 4th and 8th graders have access to a device from home,80 participants also discussed the need to replace older devices with those that meet adequate specifications. Additionally, some families/caregivers with multiple children only have access to a single device, inhibiting some children from engaging in digital learning opportunities while it is in use. Moreover, some described learners not having continued access to a device while theirs undergoes repair.
A personal device capable of running software for learning is especially important for learners who are currently or were formerly justice-involved, learners with disabilities, and learners with limited literacy skills. Justice-involved learners rarely have continued access to a device, and often those devices are not of sufficient quality to support learning. For learners with disabilities or with limited literacy skills, providing devices without assistive or adaptive technologies or those that are incapable of supporting assistive technologies inhibits them from equitably engaging with instructional materials in the most appropriate formats. Listening session participants additionally emphasized that individuals who are justice-involved experience higher levels of disabilities as compared to the general population.81 This creates a pressing need for device accessibility for justice-involved individuals to access meaningful learning and skills development opportunities.
In addition to challenges in making devices initially available to learners, schools and other community anchor institutions face barriers in funding maintenance, repair, upgrade, and replacement, as well as paying for the human resources necessary to lead such efforts (e.g., IT professionals, technical support personnel, customer service agents).
Lack of Continuous Internet and Device Availability for Highly Mobile Learners
Participants specifically highlighted how availability of broadband and devices substantially impacts highly mobile learners, such as migratory learners, learners in foster care, learners experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness, and justice-involved learners. Particularly when devices are provided by schools, districts, or other community anchor institutions, highly mobile learners lose access when they move to a new location and must return their devices. Additionally, each relocation requires a new installation of fixed connection or access to mobile connections.
Lack of Large-Scale Infrastructure Due to Digital Redlining
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act specifically states that individuals “should benefit from equal access to broadband internet access service” and that such access should not be inhibited by “income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.” Participants noted that digital redlining practices result in areas of low infrastructure investment, deepening the digital divide, especially for families/caregivers and learners of color, and preventing equal access. According to participants, providers currently do not have incentives to expand into unconnected regions, particularly because of limited potential for scale and profit. Many of the same areas also do not have cellular service or mobile connectivity. For learners living in these digitally redlined communities, accessing digital learning opportunities is challenging, and programs to make broadband more affordable have limited impact.
Rural areas, including those in Tribal lands and Native reservations, are especially impacted by digital redlining as they are more sparsely populated. Participants noted that Tribal lands and Native reservations have also historically been purposefully located in isolated and under-resourced areas and experience under-investment in infrastructure. The limited number of households who would gain availability from connectivity, coupled with high costs to build the necessary infrastructure, disincentivizes providers from serving these regions.
Participants identified digital redlining within cities as well. Within cities, participants noted that some buildings and homes may not be connected, even when physical infrastructure may be installed at the street level. Participants described instances where providers claimed areas were connected, when in reality, the necessary wiring had not been connected to homes and buildings. Tribal communities near cities face additional barriers due to the coordination required between Tribal governments, federal/state/local governments, and providers. Consequently, Tribal governments have been disproportionately burdened by the work required to keep their communities digitally connected without the necessary support or collaboration.
Participants also shared the impact of not having electricity on broadband availability, particularly within Tribal communities. Further, participants discussed the assumption by leaders and providers that learners and families/caregivers have access to electricity to power devices and broadband within their homes.
We’re also tracking a lot of our efforts through racial equity data…disaggregating our data to…see who’s most in need and ensuring that work lifting those communities…[W]hen we disaggregate data to be able to see who is disproportionately affected, we’re able to see that our Black and Brown communities, our low-income communities, older adults, [and] youth are most disproportionately affected by [the] digital divide. So, we’re making sure that we’re prioritizing those communities first in our outreach and engagement efforts.
—Reflection from roundtable focused on learners from urban areas
Finally, when current infrastructure is not maintained and repaired, communities lose broadband access and learners are unable to engage with digital learning experiences, particularly after inclement-weather events and other natural disasters. This especially impacts communities of color and low-income communities, who are often the most vulnerable to natural disasters and the last to receive repairs.82
Limitations of Building-Level Infrastructure
Participants discussed limitations to infrastructure at the building level. For example, participants shared that learners and families/caregivers who rent from landlords often need permission to install wired connectivity options. Some community leaders explained that learners and families/caregivers in their communities were not comfortable asking for this permission, and some individuals who had asked were refused. In other instances, learners and families/caregivers live in buildings with particular rules or contracts with a single provider, preventing them from installing affordable broadband options. Further, many participants highlighted that some buildings are not able to accommodate Wi-Fi or install wired options because of the building age, design, or materials. Finally, participants discussed learners and families/caregivers living in locations such as basements, where their address may not be recognized as a separate household and, therefore, cannot be serviced by broadband.
Availability Strategies Leveraged by Communities
To address availability challenges during COVID-19, participants discussed distribution of take-home hotspots and devices to learners, families/caregivers, and educators from schools, districts, or higher education institutions. Mobile and satellite technologies also provided quick solutions to make internet connections available, particularly in rural areas. For learners and families/caregivers without hotspots, participants described the use of public commercial spaces, Wi-Fi-enabled buses, or school or library parking lots as interim solutions for connectivity. Similarly, in instances where devices were not available from home, learners relied on the library, stayed late at school, or used cell phones in order to complete assignments.
Case Study: Broadband Availability Data Collection and Mapping at Navajo Preparatory School
The Navajo Preparatory School (Navajo Prep) in New Mexico serves learners across the Navajo Nation, which is the size of West Virginia. The school enrolls approximately 270 students from more than 50 majority-rural communities.
The school made extensive efforts to ensure internet availability for all learners, regardless of their residential location. At the beginning of the pandemic, all learners returned to their homes across the Navajo Nation. To ensure they had sufficient broadband, the school distributed a survey to learners to better understand their various levels of internet access and specific residential location, down to their GPS coordinates (latitude and longitude). The survey revealed that many learners did not have access to reliable, high-speed broadband, or learners’ broadband access was constrained to a speed of 1 Mbps or less, far under what is necessary to facilitate high-quality learning experiences. Based on the residential locations provided, the school developed a map of which ISPs and cellular services would reach homes. Their school staff installed the necessary equipment on learners’ homes, including extending cellular coverage by installing routers and antennas. For learners who could not be reached by wired or cellular service due to little or no coverage in certain rural areas, the school installed HughesNet satellite technology. In some cases, the school distributed multiple hotspots to each learner in order for them to have sufficient broadband access for learning.
Through the pandemic, Navajo Prep was agile in adapting and modifying approaches, as they attained access to more resources and different service providers for cellular services. They are maintaining the home internet options for all learners in case the school needs to transition online in the future, as well as to ensure that learners have reliable, high-speed broadband for learning when they are home.
Partnerships between state/local governments, community-based organizations, and community anchor institutions have been integral in supporting availability for learners and families/caregivers beyond the pandemic. For example, various organizations and businesses set up stations inside their buildings for learners to use broadband at no cost. One participant highlighted a partnership between Phoenix College, City of Phoenix, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, and the Phoenix Union School District.83 This partnership resulted in the Phoenix Digital Education Connection Canopy, which allowed the city to launch a citywide Wi-Fi network using the K-12 school system’s fiber network. The Canopy will provide 250,000 families in the Phoenix area with free Wi-Fi access. Other examples included a district and ISP partnership to place towers in different parts of the city, using buses with Wi-Fi signals to increase availability, and a district working with the local governments to install fiber, while creating pathways for learners to sustainably receive this access for free.
For highly mobile learners, participants described other types of partnerships to offer continuous broadband and device availability. For instance, community-based organizations and shelters for individuals experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness collaborated to identify learners and families/caregivers who required hotspots and understand how best to support their needs. Through this partnership, the community also advocated for connectivity in shelters and worked directly with learners and families/caregivers to meet their needs, including by installing wireless networks within shelters and distributing hotspots to families connected with or staying at a shelter. At the state level, Michigan partnered with Florida and Texas, where many migratory families were coming from, so that secondary school learners would still be enrolled in a virtual school option provided through their “home” district, while Michigan districts provided laptops, hotspots, and technical support. Michigan expects that these inter-state collaborations would be sustained post-pandemic.
Case Study: NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association Promoting Digital Inclusion by Broadband Providers
NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association represents nearly 850 small broadband providers in the most rural regions of the U.S. Consistent with its long-standing commitment to increasing broadband adoption and usage, NTCA has created focused resources to support rural broadband providers’ digital inclusion efforts in their communities. These resources include a recent whitepaper and a multi-part series of online resources about the fundamentals of digital inclusion. These offer rural broadband providers with a readily implementable framework, as well as case studies of successful programs.
The association also administers the Smart Rural Community (SRC) initiative which promotes collaboration among rural broadband providers and other local leaders to deploy broadband-enabled solutions and support agriculture, economic development, education, healthcare, and other vital sectors. Through resources that showcase best practices and educational resources, SRC highlights the multifaceted impacts of high-speed networks in rural spaces. More than 200 rural broadband companies have been designated as SRC Providers, partnering with their communities to increase access to high-speed broadband for learners and their families/caregivers. For example, numerous NTCA members partnered with school districts during periods of remote learning to provide discounted or free internet to many households with school-age children.
Community leaders also highlighted partnerships with ISPs to overcome lack of large-scale infrastructure investments due to digital redlining. District partnerships with ISPs resulted in infrastructure investment at no cost to schools, which allowed nearby homes to use broadband for free for the first year, more towers placed across a community to widen the connectivity reach, and pathways for infrastructure in remote areas through state grants.
Case Study: Availability through Partnerships with the Jersey City Housing Authority
The Jersey City Housing Authority (JCHA) in Jersey City, NJ, provides affordable housing for thousands of families, seniors, and people with disabilities. JCHA had been working with ISPs to ensure residents have affordable internet, especially given a 2019 resident survey found just a third of residents had internet access and the only device available to the majority of those connected residents was a smartphone. The need to address this digital divide was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Trena Hinton, Assistant Director of Resident Empowerment and Community Engagement at JCHA shared, “People will say that [they] have access to internet or Wi-Fi, but we found out during the pandemic, especially with school-aged kids…there was not enough speed or gigabytes to really access the learning tools and the learning platforms that they need[ed].” To ensure that all residents have access to reliable, high-speed internet, JCHA put out a public bid and contracted with two ISPs to set up internet networks available at low or no cost to residents within six of their public housing developments. The ISPs provided unique solutions to address “last mile to the building” service to connect JCHA buildings to high-speed broadband. Both ISPs utilize point to point and point to multipoint architecture, existing in-building wiring, and individual in-unit Wi-Fi routers to provide connectivity within homes for learners and their caregivers/families. This project provides service to 1,500 units of public housing, including residences of over 700 school-aged youth.
In addition to making broadband available, JCHA ensured that it would be affordable for residents. Both partner ISPs participate in the ACP, and the high-speed packages offered start at $15–20 per month, a price range that is fully covered under the ACP benefit. JCHA is also attending to adoption barriers by conducting outreach to and support for residents who are currently un- or under-connected. JCHA and the ISPs ensure that all residents have the support they need to register for both the broadband service and ACP. One of the ISPs developed a streamlined application with FCC approval that allows residents to subscribe to their service using the ACP in a matter of minutes. JCHA and the ISPs also co-promote and host registration events for residents to apply for ACP and sign up for broadband with the support of JCHA employees. Additionally, JCHA included in their public bid that ISPs could not require background checks or credit checks, annual contracts, or additional fees for essential equipment to limit barriers to adoption. Finally, JCHA ensures that residents are part of the process and supports outreach through elected resident representatives and trusted, on-the-ground employees focused on digital inclusion, resident empowerment, and community engagement.
Further Opportunities to Advance Availability
The efforts described in the previous subsection can help address the availability of connectivity and devices in the short term. However, long-term investment and support is required to ensure sustainability. Learners and families/caregivers who rely on public commercial spaces for hotspots face challenges such
Digital Inclusion:84 The activities that are necessary to ensure that all individuals in the United States have access to, and the use of, affordable information and communication technologies, such as—
- Reliable fixed and wireless broadband internet service;
- Internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; and
- Applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration; and
- Obtaining access to digital literacy training;
- The provision of quality technical support; and
- Obtaining basic awareness of measures to ensure online privacy and cybersecurity.
as flexibility in families’/caregivers’ schedules, access to transportation, allocating money for gas, childcare for other young children, time to spend at these locations, and keeping focused while in busy commercial locations. In instances where learners were provided a take-home hotspot, they often faced bandwidth limitations when sharing with members of their household or attending synchronous courses on video conferencing software. Similarly, when a single device was directly distributed to households, immediate use was difficult, as quality and interoperability of the devices were often not guaranteed. For example, one participant explained that their children’s school distributed tablets that were not compatible with the required learning software, and households were expected to purchase compatible devices out of pocket. Highly mobile learners require a device that can move with them or need help in acquiring a new device quickly after arriving in a new location. Highly mobile learners also require a reliable, high-speed broadband connection that does not require them to be in a specific location or rapid access to wired broadband installation without a long-term contract.
Participants saw an opportunity for greater state involvement in creating a robust, streamlined process that can provide ongoing support to all communities, especially highly mobile learners. Participants noted that 1:1, take-home device distribution is necessary to ensure both immediate availability and use beyond K-12 education. For learners from migratory families, leveraging recruiters may help identify highly mobile learners and gauge the availability and quality of their connectivity. The intersectional barriers faced by learners from migratory families, who are in foster care, who are experiencing homelessness, and who were formerly justice-involved point to a need for more tailored solutions to help them navigate their changing physical environments and digital tools.
Case Study: Knowledge Sharing for Incarcerated Learners by the Vera Institute of Justice
The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) advocates for the expansion of high-quality postsecondary education in prisons to improve the quality of life and increase opportunities post-release for incarcerated individuals. One area of focus within this advocacy is to expand access to broadband and technology tools for learning for incarcerated learners. Through the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell program, nearly 200 colleges are teaching in prisons across 48 states. Those colleges partner with state departments of corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to teach learners in prison. In addition to in-person instruction, corrections departments and colleges are increasingly finding solutions for educational technology that help maintain access to courses during prison lockdowns and bring in different faculty.
For example, in April 2022, Vera co-hosted a webinar with the National Reentry Resource Center and Bureau of Justice Assistance, featuring a panel of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated learners. The panel presented to an audience of individuals working in college-in-prison and related reentry programs about successful practices in prison-based education programs. One panelist from Maine shared the benefits of having regular access to a monitored email account in the prison as an incarcerated learner—a level of access that is uncommon for incarcerated learners across the country. Another panelist from Texas shared that some prisons in the state have computer labs and classrooms with SmartBoard technology. A Texas state prison is piloting a program where two computer labs have limited internet access to allow learners to do coursework through commonly used learning management systems. By highlighting these examples, Vera is able to demonstrate how colleges and corrections departments can integrate educational technology, maintain safe facilities, and strengthen pathways for gainful reentry and employment for incarcerated individuals.
Long-term infrastructure investments are also necessary to overcome the impacts of digital redlining. Incentives for companies, competition, and an open market are needed to stimulate infrastructure development. For Indigenous communities, participants highlighted tensions between broadband connectivity and other infrastructure projects (e.g., water, electricity). According to participants, the recognition of broadband as a public utility, available for all without subsidies and specific programs, is imperative. Partnerships between governments and ISPs can help increase availability, and terms of such partnerships must align with the needs of communities. One participant explained that their city council invested heavily in public Wi-Fi networks, but the contract did not include promised speeds, impeding the expansion of access to residents.
Once infrastructure is in place, maintaining and repairing that infrastructure must be a priority, particularly for communities of color and low-income communities. Participants suggested building local capacity by training community members to maintain and repair devices and infrastructure in order to build capacity and job skills within communities.
It’s a holistic approach. You have to talk about bringing in the infrastructure. You[’ve] got to talk about maintaining the infrastructure. And you’ve also got to talk about really building up that technology workforce. You’ve got to train your communities to be able to navigate this new technology that you’re introducing into the community. A lot of people are going to want to use it for school, tele-health…to run their small businesses, to order stuff
—Reflection from roundtable focused on Native and Indigenous learners
Can Learners and Families/Caregivers Pay for the Total Cost of Maintaining Reliable, High-Speed Broadband Service and Technology Tools for Learning?
Affordability refers to the ability to pay for the cost of installing and maintaining a high-speed and reliable broadband connection and technology tools for learning. Barriers and strategies related to affordability impact not only the ability for learners and families to get connected, but also to have a reliable, high-speed broadband connection and to maintain that connection—including as their circumstances change over time.
Affordability Barriers Within Communities
High Cost of Broadband and Technology Tools for Learning
Participants discussed the high cost of broadband and technology tools for learning, which began before the COVID-19 pandemic, as a major barrier to learners accessing digital learning opportunities. According to participants, high cost leads to learners from low-income backgrounds having the greatest challenges. This includes families/caregivers navigating basic needs (e.g., food, gas, shelter, electricity) that compete with subscribing to and maintaining broadband. This barrier also exists at the community level, particularly for Tribal communities. Participants discussed Tribal communities not having access to electricity and clean water and Tribal leaders having to make tough decisions between essential resources.
We are low-income…I have seven children in our family, and they all go to school as well. And…we purchase[d] a very low price [plan] from [an] internet company…The internet connection was very bad, very poor…we need[ed] to pay more than $100 to get a better internet for my children. But still, the connection sometimes got disconnected or the connection was poor…they still need access to the computer [to complete] assignments, to do research, and everything.
—Reflection from roundtable with learners and their families/caregivers
One cause of high cost discussed by participants was lack of competition between providers, particularly in rural areas. Without competition, providers are able to charge learners and families/caregivers higher prices for broadband services. Additionally, providers may not be transparent about costs associated with services and additional fees, such as modem rentals. Moreover, eligibility restrictions prevent some families/caregivers and learners from participating in government subsidies based on their immigration or refugee status.
Learners with disabilities might have access to assistive technology and devices at school but not at home due to costs. Cost can also be a barrier to purchasing new assistive technology. Therefore, assistive technology available in schools is sometimes outdated, unable to replicate hands-on learning tools, or does not adequately meet the learners’ specific needs as required by their Individualized Education Program or 504 Plan.
Lack of Sustained Funding for Affordable Internet Programs
Participants discussed lack of sustained funding for programs providing broadband and devices. Participants described many current efforts to make broadband affordable as “stopgap,” emphasizing the need to increase the longevity and reach of programs. For example, grant-based funding means that communities, including Tribal communities, are often in competition with each other to receive short-term funds that end when the grant cycle is complete. Grant-funded solutions also require agencies to have the bandwidth, capacity, and expertise to continuously search for, identify, and submit proposals.
Sustained funding is also needed for programs that subsidize broadband connections for learners and families/caregivers. Many community leaders explained that barriers to signing up for these programs for learners and families/caregivers include concerns around how long funding will last and what happens to bills and coverage when the program concludes. Finally, lack of sustained funding to provide outreach for these programs prevents communities from knowing they are available.
Participants also discussed the limited funding opportunities currently available for cities, caused in part by inaccurate data about connectivity rates in urban areas (see Lack of reliable, disaggregated data to guide investments in targeted communications and supports on page 36).
Affordability Strategies Leveraged by Communities
Participants discussed initiatives and partnerships at the federal, state, and local levels that helped mitigate affordability barriers. The FCC created the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) in May 2021 to support schools and libraries in providing the tools and services necessary for emergency remote learning. In December 2021, Congress additionally authorized the ACP, a $14 billion program, to ensure all households can afford broadband for education, employment, and more. Participants stated that the ECF made it possible for districts and libraries to purchase eligible equipment (including devices and hotspots) and broadband connections, and that the ACP was available to individuals who receive a number of federal and Tribal assistance programs. Specifically, the ACP allows qualifying households to reduce their internet costs by up to $30/month ($75/month on Tribal lands). Several companies, under the White House’s Get Internet initiative, further committed to offer ACP-eligible households at least one high-speed plan for $30/month or less, with no additional fees and no data caps. Similarly, state and local initiatives have partnered with ISPs to provide services and devices at a lower cost.
Districts encouraged families/caregivers to use the low-cost broadband options, and some districts identified all learners who qualified for broadband support to set them up directly. Participants also discussed other ongoing strategies to mitigate costs, including fundraising, building community partnerships, and finding and applying for grants, such as existing statewide broadband grants.
Office of Educational Technology and Federal Communications Commission ACP Outreach Toolkit and Resources for Schools and Districts
As trusted community members, schools and districts are encouraged to engage in outreach to eligible families/caregivers. In doing so, schools and districts can use the FCC’s outreach toolkit, with resources translated into multiple languages. In addition, schools and districts can take steps to help learners, families, and caregivers navigate the sign-up process. To access the toolkit and OET’s resources for schools and districts, please visit https://tech.ed.gov/broadband/acp/.
BroadbandUSA Federal Funding Guide
BroadbandUSA’s Federal Funding site connects leaders to funding opportunities that support broadband planning, digital inclusion, and deployment projects. To view the funding guide, please visit https://broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov/resources/federal/federal-funding.
Reduced Cost High-Speed Internet Initiatives
Through the ACP and commitments from leading internet providers, eligible households have access to low-cost internet plans and can receive a $30/month ($75/month on Tribal lands) subsidy on their bill. Several companies additionally committed to offer ACP-eligible households at least one high-speed plan for $30/month or less, with no additional fees and no data caps. This means that if households apply their ACP benefit to one of these plans, they would have no out-of-pocket cost for internet. For more information about how the Biden Administration is reducing the cost of high-speed internet, please visit https://getinternet.gov/.
Further Opportunities to Advance Affordability
The efforts described in the previous subsection can help address affordability barriers, yet more resources and expanded eligibility for affordable broadband programs are necessary to close the digital divide. Even with subsidies, participants described the cost of devices and reliable, high-speed broadband was often more than families/caregivers and learners could afford, and low-cost broadband plans sometimes did not meet the needs of learners (e.g., slow upload and download speeds, data caps, lack of awareness about conditions on data overages; see Lack of reliable, high-speed broadband connection on page 20). Eligibility restrictions for these low-cost programs also prevented many families/caregivers and learners from participating due to their immigration or refugee status. Participants also echoed a concern for the uncertainty around program end dates. Therefore, leaders must consider the unique needs and circumstances of learners when entering into partnerships and contracts that seek to make broadband more affordable.
As leaders craft digital equity plans, another key factor to consider is sustainability of funding
opportunities. For example, dedicated planning funds to support grant writing capacities would relieve communities from having to re-allocate resources or cut other programs to sustain their technology programs. Additionally, according to conversation participants, because devices and equipment require regular updates, funding opportunities must be kept consistent across state administration changes, and agencies must work in coordination to efficiently deploy funds. For Tribal communities, participants explained that state funding is not always available because of the assumption that they receive funding directly from the federal government. Tribal communities and their schools need sustainable funding through their state or territory and access to services.
Case Study: Affordable Internet and Devices for California Community College
The Foundation for California Community Colleges collaborates with 73 community college districts and 116 colleges across California. Beginning in 2014, long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Foundation prioritized digital equity by making broadband and technology tools for learning continuously available and more affordable for learners in California. They developed programs that wove broadband access with virtual essential support resources, secured by community colleges and government leaders—such as learning management systems, online libraries and tutoring, tele-health services, academic counseling, etc.—to 2.1 million learners and created nonprofit pricing to support outreach with colleges. Through the California Connects program, learners at community colleges can receive a mobile hotspot without throttling, suspension, or overage charges for $19.99 per month—empowering subscribers with the ability to connect to learning and essential information anytime, anywhere.
Because learners need access to both the internet and a device, the Foundation created systems for colleges to make technology tools for learning available for their students through private sector partnerships focused on refurbished devices (which also allows them to overcome supply chain and affordability barriers). To make sure that devices were available when they were needed, the Foundation customized a bulk purchasing program dedicated specifically to ensure the availability of a large quantity of devices that are reserved for community colleges’ needs throughout the year. To limit resource constraints on the community colleges in the interest of institutional efficiency and effectiveness, the Foundation focused on methods to send resources directly to learners’ doors and mailboxes.
Amplifying efforts to support learners across the state, the Foundation also offers product bundling of a variety of resources to complement its affordable mobile hotspot offering with laptops and classroom software. Through the Foundation’s digital equity and access program, a community college could buy 500 laptops, equipped with software and internet, and provide a list of recipient addresses, and the resources will be mailed directly to learners without adding additional burden to the college.
Do Learners and Families/Caregivers Have the Information, Support, and Skills to Obtain Regular, Adequate Access to Reliable, High-Speed Broadband Service and Technology Tools for Learning?
Adoption refers to the process by which an individual obtains daily access to broadband at a speed, quality, and capacity that is necessary, with the digital skills that are necessary to participate online, on a personal device, and on a secure and convenient network. Barriers and strategies related to adoption tend to focus on human-level challenges and strategies. They go beyond whether reliable, high-speed broadband is available and affordable to focus on whether the necessary information, support, and skill-building opportunities are provided.
Adoption Barriers Within Communities
Lack of Collaboration Between Government Agencies, Community-Based Organizations, Tribes, and Private Companies
Participants highlighted the lack of collaboration between government agencies, community-based organizations, Tribes, and private companies. They described a tendency for different sectors to work within silos to develop solutions, leading to duplicative efforts. Without partnerships, limited knowledge and expertise prevent well-intentioned efforts from seeing impact. For example, experts on the technical aspects of broadband may not consider the human elements of digital equity necessary for successful implementation. Listening session participants also discussed community anchor institutions, including local education agencies, schools, and districts, not sharing knowledge, strategies, and best practices with each other. This limits the knowledge of any single institution and their ability to best serve learners and their families/caregivers. In addition, digital equity is an intersectional issue which necessitates the education community to be in dialogue with other sectors (e.g., urban planning, environmental justice).
Exclusion of Communities Most Impacted by the Digital Divide From Conversations About Digital Equity
Participants discussed the negative effects of leaving out the voices and experiences of people most impacted by the digital divide from decision-making processes. Participants explained that when those experiences are not adequately considered, there is a disconnect between implemented solutions and what communities actually need. Moving forward without conversation leads to a lack of understanding about the community’s context, needs, and wants. Moreover, participants noted that it is important to include families/caregivers of learners, as well as the learners themselves. One participant explained that age restrictions for participating in focus groups (such as only including community members over the age of 18 in conversations) can limit learner voice, particularly when working in K-12 contexts. Many community leaders expressed frustration about engaging in these types of conversations multiple times, which has often resulted in no tangible systemic change.
In my opinion, there needs to be a change in culture. Oftentimes education is sidelined from conversations [with] other sectors…[T]here is so much that we can learn from other sectors in the urban planning space. There is so much to learn from our folks in the housing space, in the environmental justice space, and the health equity space… Having that culture changed catalyzes new conversation… In many ways, it starts to allow us to no longer work in silos.
—Reflection from roundtable focused on learners of color
Learners with disabilities and their families/caregivers are sometimes excluded from school or district level conversations about selecting and purchasing assistive technologies for their use. While including learners and families/caregivers requires more lead time and planning, excluding learners with disabilities and their families/caregivers from these important conversations leads to technologies that might not be accessible to the learner they were intended to support.
Distrust Between Communities and Government and/or Private Companies
Participants discussed distrust between communities and the government and/or private companies as a major barrier to new digital equity initiatives. Communities who experience marginalization often do not trust federal and state governments and private companies. In order to adopt programs aimed at providing broadband and technology tools for learning, communities need to trust both who the information is coming from and to whom they are giving their own information. This distrust is exacerbated by learner and family/caregiver identities and circumstances. For example, participants shared that immigration status leads learners and families/caregivers to be more wary of sharing information. LGBTQI+ community members have experienced exposure when electronic records are uncovered. Moreover, some Indigenous communities have a distrust of the government and systems due to past and current exclusionary practices.
When information or data is collected about learners and families/caregivers, they want to know where and how their data will be used due to concerns about privacy, surveillance, and monitoring. Participants shared that the most excluded members of communities are more likely to opt out of participating in a program if their social security number or other personally identifiable information is required because they do not know who will gain access to that information and how it may impact eligibility for other programs or legal status. Learners and families/caregivers may also be distrustful when they have had negative experiences with programs in the past. Listening session participants shared specific instances when learners and families/caregivers who signed up for low-cost programs had negative experiences due to programs providing broadband speeds that were slower than advertised or requiring credit checks. At times, programs caused confusion over how to cancel subscriptions, which led to learners or families/caregivers stopping payments without properly canceling, and therefore being prevented from coverage by the same provider in the future.
Lack of Reliable, Disaggregated Data to Guide Investments in Targeted Communications and Supports
Participants discussed the harm of not having reliable, disaggregated data. For example, overly aggregated data and data that misrepresents the availability of services results in an inaccurate understanding of learners’ and families’/caregivers’ access to broadband and technology tools for learning. When that inaccurate data is leveraged to drive funding and program decisions, lack of access to learning opportunities through broadband is inadequately addressed, widening the digital divide. For example, some listening session participants shared that the aggregation of data on Asian American households to include Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian families misrepresents availability for each individual group and obscures which communities need more support and resources. One participant also described how Pacific Islander-serving programs in their area are overlooked for funding that targets underrepresented or marginalized communities, despite having great need, because their community represents less than one percent of the population. Others shared that current data about connectivity in Native communities is inaccurate because it over-represents coverage for many rural Indigenous communities, does not always honor the differences between and within Native communities, and does not necessarily reflect the realities of urban Tribal communities. In cities, inaccurate data is particularly harmful for Black, Hispanic, and low-income learners due to their increased likelihood of living in neighborhoods where buildings cannot be connected or have not been connected (see Limitations of building-level infrastructure on page 24) but appear to be connected due to misreporting by ISPs.
Participants described that many schools and districts did not have data about learner connectivity at the onset of COVID-19 and emergency remote learning, which led to a lack of knowledge about which learners would be able to reliably participate in online learning. Additionally, school and district leaders described the iterative lessons they had to learn in developing surveys, as earlier iterations did not ask the necessary, specific questions, and the modalities used for distribution impacted survey completion. For example, one district explained that the large majority of learners initially reported internet access, but upon further investigation, they discovered learners reported being connected if they could access a public or commercial space that provided broadband, rather than having access at home. Further, districts highlighted when they would distribute an online survey to families/caregivers, many were not completed due to lack of broadband access. In those cases, district staff transitioned to phone surveys or other, less technology-dependent methods.
Limited Institution- and Organization-Level Capacity
Participants discussed the impact of institutions and organizations (e.g., schools, districts, libraries, colleges/universities, non-profit organizations) having limited capacity to organize and facilitate the process of ensuring all learners have reliable, high-speed broadband. These institutions and organizations serve as community hubs, providing resources to learners and their families/caregivers, yet they do not receive adequate funding or support for this expanded responsibility. Listening session participants from districts emphasized their work to ensure learners have at-home broadband, but they also clarified this has put a significant strain on their current systems and staff. In addition, participants shared that while institutions and organizations, including Tribes, need the time, knowledge, and capacity to apply for grants for funding and support, they do not currently have these human resources. Since not all low-cost broadband programs have included dedicated funding for outreach and support, community anchor institutions and community-based organizations have volunteered staff time to connect learners and families/caregivers, but they cannot sustain such efforts without additional resources.
There’s just a lot of bad data. 2018 FCC data, I think, lists that 65 percent of Indian Country has access to internet, which is definitely not the case. I think those of us who live on Tribal lands definitely know that’s not the case. I know that when you walk into any cell phone authorized dealer, they have these big coverage maps, and it always shows, like in my home area, which is the Navajo Nation…it always shows that area as fully connected, 4G, it’s bright colored. But I live there, and I know that the best connection I have there is 3G, at best. I can send a text, maybe if I’m standing in the right spot.
—Reflection from roundtable focused on Native and Indigenous learners
Lack of Resources and Support in Learners’ and Families’/Caregivers’ Home Languages
Participants discussed resources and support for learners and families/caregivers not being offered in their home languages or provided in translated language that is overly technical or in a different dialect. Participants identified information about coursework, low-cost broadband and device programs, learning opportunities, technical support, and communication with ISPs is not provided in all languages spoken within a given community, including non-written languages and languages that are less-commonly spoken than English or Spanish. This lack of translation can be harmful for learners and their families/caregivers. For example, it may pose a barrier to understanding costs and services, leading to being charged above the expected price. Learners and their families/caregivers cannot broadly adopt broadband and technology tools for learning if the resources provided are not available in the language in which they are most comfortable communicating.
I think we just [have] to think about [the] long term with everything. How do we maintain the sustainability of everything that we talked about…? And that’s fiscal, that’s infrastructure, that’s maintaining, that’s personnel…Is that included… districts? We have been the care center of the pandemic, and families look to schools…to be the technology infrastructure of the community…I don’t see it going away anytime soon.
—Reflection from roundtable focused on learners from rural areas
Lack of Inclusive Strategies for Communicating with Families/Caregivers
Participants discussed barriers faced in reaching and communicating with families/caregivers. Importantly, this barrier does not necessarily exist because families/caregivers do not want to communicate with schools, districts, and local nonprofits. Rather, the proper means of communication are often unused, and inadequate resources are available to meet families/caregivers where they are. For example, lack of outreach, information, and technical support in accessible formats bars learners and families/caregivers with disabilities from access and full participation in resources and programs. Further, many participants explained that current funding does not sufficiently support outreach. Therefore, districts and community-based organizations often leverage social media as a low-cost solution. However, this form of communication only reaches those with at least some connectivity.
When communicating with families/caregivers, specific identities or characteristics might make them more difficult to reach. For example, listening session participants reported that learners and families/caregivers who are undocumented, experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness, or in foster care might be less likely to come to school buildings for information-sharing events, particularly if they are not attending in-person classes daily. Highly mobile families/caregivers, including learners who are experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness, may be difficult to connect with because they often move to different locations.
Limited Opportunities for Digital Literacy Skills Training for Learners
Participants discussed the need for learners to develop digital literacy skills and digital resilience. They directly countered the myth that most learners already know how to use technology. One participant described how learners tend to have “fragmented knowledge” of digital tasks and therefore can have difficulties in navigating multiple learning platforms or tools. Another participant explained young learners tend to consume information successfully from digital sources, but often do not have the skills to evaluate, produce, and share their knowledge. Participants explained many families/caregivers rely on K-12 learners to navigate technology-related issues, but these learners have often not been provided explicit instruction in digital literacy skills.
There was a time when my children and I needed connections with people. And there was no one we really knew. And not having access and connection to the internet, these days and times, that’s where everything is: directions, locations, hours, numbers, addresses. All that information is now on computers and phones. And without having that digital connection, it made it very difficult to do all the other things, including school.
—Reflection from roundtable with learners and their families/caregivers
According to participants, some populations of learners face greater barriers to developing digital skills. For example, participants shared that justice-involved learners rarely have access to digital literacy training opportunities while incarcerated, but they require these skills when they re-enter communities. Without digital literacy skills, for example, these learners often struggle to demonstrate evidence or obtain transcripts for learning that took place while incarcerated. Additionally, participants discussed that without digital literacy skills, justice-involved learners may have higher recidivism rates because they are not as easily able to take part in our increasingly digital economy and society.
Learners with disabilities also require training to use assistive technologies, which may call for additional maintenance, preparation, and hands-on support from trained providers. In some cases, learning platforms and digital course materials for online instruction may lack necessary accessibility tools and features. Other platforms may have an abundance of options that require customization to be used as required by a learner’s Individualized Education Program or 504 Plan.
Limited Access to Professional Learning and Digital Literacy Skills Training for Educators
Participants discussed insufficient professional learning and digital skills training for educators, including higher education faculty. This barrier was especially clear when educators had to lead digital learning experiences during COVID-19. According to participants, schools, districts, and educator preparation programs currently do not adequately build educator capacity for online and digital learning at a level that allows all educators to be comfortable using technology tools, which ultimately leads to varied learner and family/caregiver experiences. Educators also often lack training around using assistive technology or teaching learners with disabilities in virtual environments. The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated educators’ transition rapidly online with limited, if any, professional learning.
Limited Access to Digital Literacy Skills Training for Families/Caregivers
Participants discussed families/caregivers’ lack of access to digital literacy programs. Without digital literacy skills, when learners—particularly young learners—are using technology for learning at home, their families/caregivers are unable to support them and monitor their progress. They are unable to troubleshoot technical difficulties, log into learning management systems and software, and use digital tools to engage with their education by checking grades and attending information meetings. Families/caregivers of learners with disabilities also may not have access and/or time to participate in appropriate digital literacy skills and other training to specifically support learners with assistive technology, limiting the support they can give. Some participants also identified that, in addition to developing digital skills, leaders and community-based organizations need to focus on supporting families/caregivers in understanding the value of a broadband connection for learners’ educational experiences. Finally, participants emphasized that families/caregivers could vary in age. Particular attention must be paid to help elderly family members and caregivers in multi-generational households.
You need access. But with access, you need the tools. With the tools, you also need the training, or what we call support…In other words, you just can’t give someone the tools and expect them to succeed. So, just want to make sure that we emphasize the need for training as well as learner help desk support…We need the faculty training too. And we have to make sure the faculty have access.
—Reflection from roundtable focused on adult learners and higher education
Lack of Access to Technical Support for Learners and Families/Caregivers
Participants discussed the lack of technical support available to learners and families/caregivers. Technical support could include one-on-one assistance delivered in-person, over the phone, or online or supplemental resources, such as video tutorials or printed materials, to help learners, families/caregivers, and educators navigate technology tools and digital environments and troubleshoot technical difficulties. This support is critical for learners engaged in digital environments, including full-day online learning or shorter digital learning experiences for tutoring or other needs. Many learners and families/caregivers currently do not have access to technical support, particularly outside of regular business hours when learners and families/caregivers often require the most support. Without technical support for families/caregivers, learners may not have the support for learning they regularly have during the school day.
Lack of Support to Complete Applications for Affordable Broadband Programs
Participants discussed the lack of support available for learners and families/caregivers to complete applications for affordable broadband programs and other services, as they may not fully understand the programs’ scopes, not have access to the internet or devices to complete online applications, require support
to prove eligibility, or not understand the technical specifications of the plans available to them. Participants described the enrollment process for affordable broadband programs as burdensome, time-consuming, complicated, and at times, overly invasive for learners and families/caregivers. Specific barriers during the enrollment process included having multiple steps and disjointed systems, needing to wait for confirmation emails before continuing with the process (therefore not being able to complete it in one sitting), and not having all of the necessary information to compare costs and find the best options. Listening session participants described family/caregiver and learner concerns over what happens if their income changes or a program ends, whether credit checks are necessary, and if they need to provide social security numbers.
Moreover, learners and families/caregivers with limited English proficiency, who are refugees, or who are experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness experience unique barriers in completing applications for affordable broadband programs. Language barriers can prevent learners and families/caregivers from getting information about affordable broadband programs and their scopes. Learners and families/caregivers who are refugees receive large amounts of information upon arrival in the U.S. and need to complete other applications for services before they are able to sign up for affordable broadband programs, all of which require support to navigate. Additionally, financial barriers, such as credit checks and down payments, can inhibit newly arriving learners and families/caregivers from accessing programs. When programs require a single address, learners and families/caregivers who are experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness (including formerly justice-involved individuals who experience high levels of housing insecurity and homelessness) are not able to gain access through the program.
Adoption Strategies Leveraged by Communities
Digital Literacy Development for Learners, Families/Caregivers, and Educators
Districts, schools, community anchor institutions, and community-based organizations have not only been key players in expanding Wi-Fi access and loaning devices and hotspots, but also providing support for digital literacy skills training for a variety of audiences. During COVID-19, educators in some districts visited families/caregivers to provide direct support for using devices and accessing content online. Districts, community-based organizations, and libraries also held various workshops to promote digital literacy among learners, educators, and families/caregivers.
And I think in the digital equity field, when we talk about…it’s not just access. It’s not just availability. It’s also adoption. That adoption is a human interaction. It is a relationship at its core.
—Reflection from roundtable focused on adult learners and higher education
Case Study: Learner and Educator Support for Learning and Teaching in Digital Environments at Quinsigamond Community College
Quinsigamond Community College (QCC) in Massachusetts recognizes the barriers their learners face in accessing broadband and technology tools for learning. They are committed to providing technical and program support to ensure all learners have the necessary resources to be successful in their coursework, particularly in courses taught in online (asynchronous) or remote (synchronous) learning environments. In addition to purchasing devices and hotspots for learners, QCC hired online advisors to support learners who are engaging online and remotely (beyond their existing academic advisors and faculty). These online advisors use both analog and digital communications to reach out to learners who are not engaging in courses, provide basic digital literacy training, and ensure structured support for course success.
At QCC, digital equity for learners is also intricately tied to faculty support. All QCC faculty members who are teaching an online or remote course are required to complete training in quality instructional methods. In addition, the QCC Center for Academic Excellence trains faculty on online course delivery and provides resources necessary to teach online. The Center for Academic Excellence’s ongoing staff development is not only led by leaders and experts but also by fellow faculty members. This peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing ensures that workshops are relevant and comprehensible for faculty member attendees.
QCC continues to use and expand on these digital equity strategies, even as in-person courses have returned. For example, QCC is leveraging data and learner experience feedback to ensure that taking courses online or remotely does not inequitably disadvantage learners. Specifically, they are using course success data to determine where learners need support and which learners need to be prioritized. Currently, QCC is seeing a 5 to 10 percent difference in course success rates between in-person and online/remote courses. QCC is also observing lower course success rates for Black learners, Hispanic learners, and learners who identify as men as compared to the full learner body. This demonstrates the work that is still needed and how critical QCC’s continued support is for providing high quality access to learners and educators.
Communities have used a number of different strategies to reach populations furthest from digital opportunities. For example, one community hosted digital literacy workshops around learners’ and families’/caregivers’ schedules and provided food and childcare, so that families/caregivers had the necessary support to fully participate. Community-based organizations also provided digital literacy support to refugee learners in-person or over the phone. Participants also described approaches where districts created tutorial videos in multiple languages for learners and families/caregivers, working with multilingual youth to create videos, and providing direct training for families/caregivers to support their children. The state of Massachusetts recently created a Broadband Innovation Fund to support digital literacy building opportunities, including at community anchor institutions.87 Through a partnership between the Urban League of Essex County and Invest Newark,88 a technology center provided professional and digital skills development for educators, as well as digital literacy training for Newark residents and college and workforce preparation opportunities for middle- and high-school learners. Some higher education institutions have also pivoted their approach to building digital literacy by providing one-on-one support with extended hours for learners who are navigating hybrid and asynchronous environments.
Case Study: Collaborative State and Community Initiatives for Digital Skills Training in Refugee Communities
During the pandemic, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) sought to strengthen partnerships between refugee resettlement networks and organizations promoting digital equity. In the fall of 2020, MPI partnered with the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees (MORA) to increase digital access and adoption among refugee communities. MPI delivered technical assistance over a series of four sessions to MORA and its newly established Maryland Digital Work Group, which included participation from four local resettlement agencies. Together, they developed a multi-pronged approach to increase refugees’ access to devices, the internet, and digital skills training in languages used by the local refugee population in Maryland. MPI linked MORA with PCs for People, a national nonprofit organization that offers refurbished computers at low-cost, and the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition. This connection led to local resettlement agencies distributing 70 computers and hotspots to refugee households. Local resettlement agencies continue to partner with PCs for People even after the end of the technical assistance period, showing promise for longer-term, sustainable engagement. MPI also connected MORA with Byte Back, a nonprofit organization that specializes in training under-resourced communities in digital skills, to explore the possibility of adapting an existing curriculum to train multilingual refugees as digital navigators, who can train their community members and serve as ambassadors to the digital world.
MPI has recently produced a report on Advancing Digital Equity Among Immigrant-Origin Youth, which highlights insights from refugee resettlement staff, community leaders, educators, and library and IT professionals working to support immigrant-origin youth.
For learners who are justice-involved, digital literacy programs may be provided through districts, education divisions within state corrections departments, or by adult learning and higher education institutions. Prisons may be served by grantees in the federal TRIO programs89, which support the progress of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds from middle school to post-baccalaureate programs. In Wisconsin,90 a newsletter distributed through a community-based organization to prisons acts as a vehicle for digital skills development for justice-involved learners that do not have direct, consistent access to technology. The organization is also supporting justice-involved individuals with developing digital literacy through both digital and analog learning opportunities.
Participants also noted professional learning opportunities for educators. One Tribal college requires faculty to have certification to teach online and is creating counseling support for online engagement with learners. The U.S. Department of Education’s COVID-19 Handbook Volume II91 also shares considerations and resources for educator professional learning opportunities that support effective use of technology.
Case Study: Flexible Supports for Learners and Educators with Digital Access in Roselle Public Schools
Roselle Public Schools is focused on “Every Student Everyday!” and meeting learners where they are by any means necessary to support learning in digital environments. Their ongoing 1:1 program offers 100 percent access to devices and internet for K-12 learners and provides flexible support for both learners and educators.
For example, Roselle Public Schools wanted to provide on-demand academic support beyond the traditional school day. To meet this goal, they began utilizing PAPER. This online platform provides learners with 24-hour access to homework help, tutoring, writing feedback, and study support from certified teachers on-demand, synchronously, and in multiple languages. Since it was launched in the middle of the 2021-2022 school year, the district has seen large usage of PAPER tutoring to support learners beyond the traditional school day, removing the time- and space-related barriers to assistance that existed previously.
For educators, one form of flexible support is flexible professional learning opportunities, known as the Professional Development Menu (PDM). Through the PDM, educators can receive professional learning opportunities on demand, with an emphasis on using a variety of technology tools more seamlessly within classrooms and building a digital archive of best practices from across the district. The PDM provides an alternative to traditional professional learning models and allows teachers the flexibility to tailor their own professional learning experiences, actualize their individual pathways for learning, and strengthen their pedagogy.
With learners and educators returning to in-person learning, Roselle Public Schools has begun reevaluating their resources and efforts to ensure they focus on all aspects of digital inclusion. They have revisited how all resources are distributed across grade levels and across the district to ensure digital tools and accessibility remain equitable for all learner subgroups. They are also focused on digital citizenship and the necessary digital literacy skills training for learners and families/caregivers, as they broaden the scope of this work to optimize school-home partnerships.
Human-Level and Technical Support for Learners, Families/Caregivers, and Educators
Participants emphasized the importance of district- or community-led hotlines and help desks for technical support. In-person resources such as digital navigators, digital coaches, and library-based programs were also key supports. Participants specifically highlighted the essential and multi-faceted role digital navigators play in serving their communities. As trusted members of their community, they collect data on the common barriers faced, support families/caregivers in signing up for ACP, and provide digital skills training and 1:1 technical support. Community anchor institutions and community-based organizations have also been integral in supporting elderly family members/caregivers and immigrant and refugee families by providing connectivity support in-person or virtually. In certain instances, services have included home visits to ensure refugee learners could access school, communicate with educators, and enroll in classes. One participant shared there are monthly support groups across their state for grandparents for digital literacy development.
Case Study: Adoption and Support Call Center from Communities In Schools of Nevada
With schools relying on remote instruction throughout Nevada in the fall of 2020, the “Connecting Kids” public-private partnership was developed between public school districts, charter schools, the Nevada Department of Education, community groups, businesses, state agencies, local municipalities, nonprofit organizations, education advocacy groups, Chambers of Commerce, food banks, and more to ensure that 100 percent of learners had access to broadband and devices. As part of the Connecting Kids initiative, Communities In Schools of Nevada, in partnership with the Clark County School District, opened the Connecting Kids Nevada virtual Family Support Center. The Family Support Center, staffed by 150 employees, operated 12 hours per day, six days per week to sign up eligible families/caregivers for subsidized internet through a partnership with Cox Communications or hotspots in partnership with T-Mobile. Support Center staff spent whatever time was necessary to connect with families/caregivers and walk them through the entire registration process. Tami Hance-Lehr, CEO, shared, “Some of my agents would be on the phone for 30 or 45 minutes, either walking them through how the program was going to work [or] literally walking them through the application, and helping them fill it out themselves. That was a big win for us. We didn’t just say, ‘Here’s the website. Go fill out your application.’ We literally made a deal with Cox Communications that we filled out the application on behalf of them.”
As Hance-Lehr references, the Family Support Center created a specialized process with Cox Communications that allowed call center staff to complete the registration process on behalf of learners and families/caregivers with their recorded verbal consent. This reduced adoption barriers to applications and ensured families/caregivers not only learned about programs but were able to register. If a learner or family was not ready when they were initially called, a supervisor would call back a few days later to check back in with the unconnected family and answer any additional questions they had about available programs. Because of the reputation the Family Support Center garnered for answering all questions, trustworthiness, and support, the call center became an essential hub for learners and families/caregivers and has expanded to support families/caregivers with other needs including SNAP benefits, social worker needs, housing, and more. If they could not answer a question immediately, center staff found a solution and called families/caregivers and learners back. In total, the Family Support Center has connected 18,000 families to reliable, high-speed broadband and has fielded over 45,000 calls. Even after every learner has been connected and school has returned to in-person settings, the Family Support Center call center is still open for learners and families/caregivers to reach out to. It is now operated by the Clark County School District.
Whole Community/Ecosystem Engagement
Participants highlighted how collaboration with learners and families/caregivers and between
organizations helped to build trust and deepen impact. Soliciting regular feedback from learners, families, and caregivers is integral not only to hear about current, pressing needs but also to co-create solutions and thereby build trust and buy-in from community members. For example, participants from Ector County Independent School District, TX (see Case Study on page 46 for further information) mentioned that a local task force solicited feedback from learners and families/caregivers through multiple methods (e.g., social media, pencil-and-paper) to assess their levels of access to broadband and technology tools for learning. Recognizing the larger community need for digital equity (rather than just the needs of learners), the task force includes community-based organizations, local government leaders, businesses, and the school district and is identifying how everyone can benefit from affordable and available broadband. Other participants discussed their districts setting up data-sharing agreements, so that learners would not lose access to devices if they move out of the district.
I would encourage you also to think…broadly about not just education institutions but also sort of the broader ecosystem that students are going to be engaging with, whether it’s other kinds of community support, faith programming, libraries, what have you. I’m thinking sort of a little bit more broadly about, how is this whole thing…going to be moving together? Education is just one slice of that. I think it’s going to be really important.
—Reflection from roundtable focused on adult learners and higher education
Case Study: Community Partnerships in Ector County Independent School District
For Ector County Independent School District (ECISD) in rural West Texas, community partnerships have been integral to connecting learners, families/caregivers, and the community to affordable and available broadband. The beginning of the pandemic revealed that 39 percent of learners lacked either available or affordable broadband in their homes. In response, ECISD developed a series of partnerships for a variety of short-term solutions for learners and families. From there, a local task force, including the school district, nonprofit organizations, local government entities, and business leaders, was formed to evaluate the challenges associated with internet connectivity and develop a county-wide plan for broadband. At first, the conversation centered around learners disconnected from school due to the sudden pivot to remote learning and the large number of children living in unconnected or under-connected areas of Ector County. The task force realized there was a bigger need for connectivity, specifically thinking about access in a way that the entire community can benefit, and improving services like tele-health options, and economic development opportunities, among other applications. This framing has invited more community members to actively engage and work on creating short term solutions, while brainstorming permanent ones that can solve the challenge of connectivity for all of Ector County.
Providing Support for Enrolling in Affordable Internet Programs
Schools were recognized as key hubs to facilitate information dissemination and resource distribution due to their centrality to learners and their families/caregivers, as well as capacity and expertise to provide translations and accessibility accommodations as necessary. Participants highlighted the role that community-based organizations and community anchor institutions, schools, and districts, as trusted messengers, play in supporting learners and their families/caregivers to learn about and enroll in federal programs, such as ACP. Many community-based organizations printed out materials and disseminated information about the ACP over the phone and through partnerships with schools. District staff also helped families/caregivers complete paperwork for eligible programs and provide support through the process. Guidance counselors and youth fluent in languages spoken in the community additionally contributed to spreading awareness and knowledge about the programs.
Case Study: Learner Voice at Maine West High School
Amplifying learner voice is a priority for Maine West High School in Illinois. The school has created multiple pathways and supports for students to lead, collaborate with their peers, and to advise and engage with school leadership. For example, students, through a formal application process, can join the Principal’s Leadership Team (PLT). Currently, this advisory board includes 40 students who report directly to the principal, providing advice and feedback solicited from their peers on a monthly cadence. The PLT solicits feedback from their peers every Friday, inquiring on a variety of topics such as school lunch prices, the current advisory model, school schedule, and the hours of operation of their test retake center. The PLT also has a podcast committee that serves as a platform for students to share about their experiences academically and personally at Maine West. The school has also sponsored a Student Voice Committee, open for any student to actively partake in. The Student Voice Committee comes together weekly, where during this time, no club meetings or teacher meetings can occur. The meeting is dedicated to providing feedback to teachers on the listed agenda items and creating action items to follow up on. The committee also solicits feedback from their peers through surveys embedded in QR codes, inquiring on what the committee is doing well and what they could improve. This support for learner agency and the cycle of continuous feedback has promoted trust among peers and school leadership. To date, Maine West has worked to ensure that all students have access to the devices and internet access they need, but the PLT is a location where students could raise concerns about digital equity and voice their needs as further needs arise.
Further Opportunities to Advance Adoption
While the efforts previously described can help drive adoption of broadband and technology tools for learning, long-term investment and capacity is essential to sustain efforts to advance adoption. For example, hotlines and help desks often have insufficient staffing. However, learners need no-cost, readily available, and on-demand support after typical business hours that is provided by the district, local government, or another organization. This technical support is necessary even when learners and families/caregivers have strong digital literacy skills, as they will inevitably run into issues they cannot troubleshoot themselves.
For learners with disabilities, once an appropriate device is identified and acquired, the learner, family/caregiver, and professionals who work with the learner should receive training to use the device and ensure access to learning platforms and course materials. Support from educators, related service providers, and families/caregivers is critical to ensure every learner with a disability has access to a free appropriate public education. Furthermore, for justice-involved learners, participants suggested states and territories should share information about affordable broadband and device programs and digital literacy building opportunities within reentry programs.
Digital communication methods (e.g., social media, videos) are important to reach some learners and families/caregivers, but by themselves, they are insufficient to reach learners and families/caregivers who do not have access to broadband or digital skills development opportunities. Analog communication methods should also be considered. However, they require more people power and greater time, resources, and effort. Leaders should collaborate with community anchor institutions and community-based organizations to sustainably support both digital and analog communication methods to reach all learners and families/caregivers.
Lastly, there needs to be trusted support at every stage of the sign-up process, such as translators for multilingual communities, resources highlighting eligibility criteria for services, explicit guidance on how to use the internet, and dedicated personnel who can provide real-time support as learners and families/caregivers complete applications for supports and services. When working to provide trusted support, consider:
- Services and communication should be available for learners and families/caregivers in their home language. When translations are made available, they should use vocabulary and terms with which local learners and families/caregivers will be familiar, free of overly complicated language or jargon.
- Surveys can help illuminate learner and family/caregiver needs, and organizations should be cognizant about whether such instruments are constructed in a manner that is accessible to all, including those with low digital literacy skills or individuals with disabilities. Leaders should also collaborate directly with communities in their data collection to encourage participation and ensure all voices are heard.
- Community anchor institutions and community-based organizations can serve as trusted hubs within many communities and support families/caregivers and learners in adopting broadband. This type of collaboration should intentionally attend to the expertise of each group and the knowledge and relationships they bring.
Center on Inclusive Technology & Education Systems
The Center on Inclusive Technology & Education Systems (CITES) supports districts in creating and sustaining inclusive technology systems that serve all students, including students with disabilities who require assistive technology or accessible educational materials. A framework of evidence-based practices to enhance the successful use of technology to foster learning and life success is in development. Visit https://cites.cast.org/more/district-examples to read exemplary case stories and vignettes of districts implementing inclusive technology practices.
- Learners and families/caregivers also need support to understand their options for broadband plans, including how much data and bandwidth will be sufficient for their own or their learners’ educational needs. Learners and families/caregivers require clear and transparent information and accessible technical support to make informed decisions without fear of hidden details or fees.
When we’re talking about equity…we’re talking about human dignity and worth. So, we are communicating in very clear terms that some people are disposable and some people are not, that some people should be afforded the respect…that their human dignity, their worth to the society is affirmed and not…Equity comes from a space of who is seen. And how do we express that value? And we express that even in our equity initiatives…so I always wonder, how do we think about digital equity with an understanding or an expectation that all people are worthy and we need to help get them where they need to be?
—Reflection from roundtable focused on Native and Indigenous learners
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84 H.R.3684 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, 2021
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