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The Digital Access Divide

Two students, one in a wheelchair, are on either side of a ladder which goes straight up.
The Digital Access Divide stands between those students and educators who have equitable, sustainable access to connectivity, devices, and digital content and those who do not. This also includes accessibility and digital health, safety, and citizenship.

For all learners to have the deep, complex, active learning experiences described above, states and districts must focus on closing one other key divide—the digital access divide. This divide has historically been defined as providing equitable access to reliable, high-speed connectivity, hardware, and digital resources. Accessibility and digital health, safety, and citizenship are also key to closing the access divide. While school systems have made great strides in closing the digital access divide since the publication of the 2017 NETP, pernicious problems such as geographic barriers and local skill capacity require swift action at all levels to realize the design and use visions laid out above. This section outlines the recommendations and examples of learning environments designed (or re-designed) to close that divide and enable “everywhere all-the-time learning.”

Recommendations for Closing the Access Divide

  1. Develop a “Portrait of a Learning Environment” to set expectations around habits and abilities no matter what the space. (States, District)
  2. Establish and maintain a cabinet-level edtech director to ensure the wise and effective spending of edtech funds. (States, Districts) 
  3. Conduct regular needs assessments to ensure technology properly supports learning. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  4. Develop model processes and guidelines for device refresh policies based on local funding structures. (States, Districts)
  5. Leverage state purchasing power or regional buying consortia when purchasing edtech hardware, software, and services. (States, Districts)
  6. Develop learning technology plans in consultation with a broad group of stakeholders and according to established review cycles. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  7. Leverage public/private partnerships and community collaboration to bring broadband internet access to previously under-connected areas and ensure student access to everywhere, all-the-time learning. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  8. Develop processes and structures that ensure the inclusion of accessibility as a component of procurement processes. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  9. Plan for and incorporate skills and expectations across all grade levels and subject areas for Digital Health, Safety, and Citizenship, and Media Literacy. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
On the left side of the image, two students, one in a wheelchair, are on either side of a ladder which goes straight up. On the right side  the students are at the top of the image. The ladder has been converted into a wheelchair accessible ramp allowing both of them to get to the top. At each ramp turn are different words: Connectivity, Accessibility, Devices, Digital Content, and Health, Safety & Citizenship.
Closing the Digital Access Divide

California District Takes Systemic Approach to Equitable Access

In Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD)—a small, rural district located in the Central Valley of California—approximately 93 percent of the students identify as Hispanic/Latino and 42 percent as English Learners; 24 percent receive migrant services; and all students receive free meals. The district has committed to ensuring every learner has the best learning experience daily. Since 2007, this dedication has manifested in system-wide investments in time, resources, and technology to support high-quality, personalized learning in face-to-face and virtual learning environments. 

LUSD refers to its students as learners, codifying their active role in their education. The district refers to teachers as learning facilitators who guide learners toward targeted, relevant resources, providing direct support to unique learning needs and designing personalized learning pathways through which learners produce evidence of their learning to demonstrate mastery of relevant standards and skills. The district’s approach is inspired by the core belief that preparing learners for their future requires dramatically rethinking educational practices. In 2018, a collaborative project with Transcend Education, Summit Public Schools, and the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University developed a series of learner actions and experiences, and corresponding educator actions and strategies that exemplify high-quality personalized instruction. 

LUSD maximizes its use of technology to support this vision and ensure learning is always available everywhere. In 2015, LUSD leaders recognized that providing and encouraging extended learning opportunities would require internet and device access outside of school. Given their rural location, they realized this would require a community solution. As a result, they launched a multi-year project to install nine distribution towers across the district to expand the district’s network. They then placed hundreds of hotspots in people’s homes to provide free, filtered coverage for all learners. In addition, the district installed cell towers to connect LTE-enabled devices. They collaborated with and engaged critical stakeholders throughout the process, gathering input from students, educators, school leaders, parents, neighbors, business owners, and the local government.

From this experience, LUSD leaders prioritized clarity, transparency, and communication. They developed “SMART” (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic/reasonable, and timely) objectives, shared them publicly, and referred to them regularly to establish a clear and common understanding. The District Director of Technology and 21st Century Learning consistently communicated with stakeholders and iteratively revised messaging to ensure they understood the project’s purpose and what would be necessary to ensure success. In addition, the director collaborated with the Chief Business Officer to ensure financial sustainability. The district recognized funding would shift over time and wanted to ensure infrastructure could be installed and maintained. Most importantly, LUSD leadership ensured that every technology decision aligned with the district’s vision for learning—all learners can learn, acquire knowledge in different ways and timeframes, and have access to future-focused learning.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the Spring of 2020, LUSD knew that all their learners had a device, and almost 100 percent had sufficient internet access. Equally important, given the district’s embrace of blended learning to personalize instruction, learners had the skills to navigate digital content independently, and educators had the resources and the experience to support them virtually. The district had recognized that providing internet and device access was only the foundation for bridging the digital access divide and had taken steps to address the challenge. As a result, it was well-positioned for the pandemic transition to online learning.

Begin with the End Goal in Mind: Design Portraits of Learning Environments

Just as states and school systems can find value in developing Profiles of a Learner/Graduate and Profiles of an Educator, they can also build a common vision through the development of Portraits of Learning Environments. Setting such expectations for the qualities of all learning spaces—physical and digital—can help ensure equity of access, consistency of experience, and clear expectations of functionality and interoperability when procuring/developing new resources. Designing a Portrait of a Learning Environment can ensure all learning environments have the capacity and resources necessary to shift and meet the needs of all learners and learning goals. In developing such portraits, states, and districts might begin with the questions like those below.

Technology Questions in the Development of Profiles of Learning Environments:

  1. What aspects of environmental design are necessary to make realizing the system’s Profile of an Educator and Profile of a Graduate/Learner possible?
  2. How might learning environments be designed to accommodate current and anticipated technological needs, e.g., power supplies, projection capabilities, broadband speeds, and auditory assistance?
  3. What standards or certifications of accessibility and interoperability will be required as part of procurement processes to ensure accessibility?
  4. How might learning environments be flexibly designed to allow educators and learners to move between the whole group, small group, and individual learning experiences afforded by technology?
  5. How can all learning environments be designed with adaptability for varying learner needs and abilities?

For examples of other considerations when setting expectations for learning environments, consider UDL Tips for Designing an Engaging Learning Environment, The Third Teacher, or Seven Principles for Classroom Design: The Learning Space Rating System. While these and other resources can assist in thinking through the totality of the learning environment, closing the digital access divide will be a key component in those environments being able to support learners fully.

Three Components of Access: Availability, Affordability, Adoption

Availability: Is there sufficient infrastructure and coverage to deliver reliable, high-speed wired or wireless broadband service and technology tools for learning?
Affordability: Can learners and families/caregivers pay for the total cost of maintaining reliable, high-speed broadband service and technology tools for learning?
Adoption: 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?

Readers should refer to the DEER publication’s executive summary for a look into what comprises each component.

Defining the Digital Access Divide

The digital access divide refers to the unequal distribution of access to digital technologies, such as computers, the internet, and other digital tools, between historically marginalized learners and their peers. It is closely related to digital equity, which aims to address and overcome this divide to ensure all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity necessary for full participation in the society and economy of the United States.107 The digital access divide often both mirrors and exacerbates existing educational inequalities. Students without adequate access to digital resources struggle to participate fully in online learning, access educational materials, collaborate with peers, or develop the digital skills and literacies needed for post-graduation success. These disparities can impact a student’s ability to participate fully and benefit from digital learning opportunities often taken for granted by their historically better-resourced peers.108 109 110 111 112

Digital Access Divide Components

Accessibility: Accessible learning materials include print- and technology-based educational materials—textbooks and related core materials—designed or enhanced in a way that makes them usable across the widest range of learner variability, regardless of format (e.g., print, digital, graphic, audio, video). Accessible learning materials can include a wide range of features to support user needs, such as text-to-speech, closed captioning, magnifying screen content, ALT-text, and speech recognition. Many of these features are helpful for all users, not just those with disabilities. For instance, text-to-speech tools are beneficial not only for students with dyslexia but for students who wish to listen to complete readings while in transit. Digital learning technologies can be either the gateway to learning opportunities for individuals with disabilities or a gatekeeper blocking them from accessing the same quality of learning experiences as their peers. Too often, digital learning materials fall into the latter category instead of the former.

Digital Infrastructure (inside and outside of school): Access to reliable internet connectivity and broadband services in different geographical areas varies greatly, especially in economically disadvantaged communities. State and federal government support has made significant progress in providing reliable, high-speed internet access to school buildings. According to Education Superhighway, 99.3 percent of America’s schools have a reliable, high-speed broadband connection.114 However, many students still lack access to reliable, high-speed internet at home, hindering their ability to participate in ”everywhere, all-the-time learning,” first described in the 2017 NETP. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13 percent of American households have no broadband internet subscription.115  Some students may have limited home internet access (via cellular or satellite), likely inadequate for educational purposes due to data caps, inconsistent or low-quality connectivity, and slow speeds. Other students may only be able to access the internet while at the homes of friends or other family members or in public locations such as restaurants. Still others may share their connection with other members of the household. 

Digital Learning Devices: The availability and quality of digital learning devices available to students varies from district to district and even school to school. Some students and teachers may have access to school system-issued devices at school but not at home. Some students may have personally owned devices they can use for learning, while others may not. Other students may only have access to old or outdated equipment at school or home, limiting their ability to participate in digital learning experiences. In some cases, students may have to share devices with other children or adults in the family, making it difficult to complete homework and continue their learning outside school hours.


When configuring devices for students to take home, be aware of potential unintended consequences of device management policies and software. For instance, IT management policies that “lockdown” devices in the name of cybersecurity may also prevent students from configuring their devices to meet their learning needs, such as configuring accessibility features. School systems that use software platforms to monitor student online behavior may create privacy-related equity issues. Students with personally owned devices at home can use the internet without school system monitoring, while students who rely solely on school-issued devices do not have the same opportunity. Consider carefully balancing device security and statutory requirements with device usability and equity considerations.

Digital Health, Safety, and Citizenship: Digital Health, Safety, and Citizenship refers to the ability of individuals to maintain a healthy and empowered relationship with technology and the digital world while using technology appropriately, responsibly, and safely. It encompasses digital literacy, defined as ‘the skills associated with using technology to enable users to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate information; and developing digital citizenship and the responsible use of technology.’116 Knowledge and skill inequities in this area can negatively impact student ability to navigate and use digital tools effectively, potentially impacting their readiness for the workforce and post-graduation success. Digital health, safety, and citizenship skills empower students to use technology meaningfully and safely. 

Cultural Responsiveness: When selecting and implementing edtech tools, schools and districts can often overlook whether those tools are culturally relevant, responsive,117 and sustaining for all intended users. This can include the design, development, and implementation of educational tools, resources, and platforms that grow from and are tailored to the cultural backgrounds, identities, and experiences of diverse learners. A 2021 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, Cultivating Interest and Competencies in Computing: Authentic Experiences and Design Factors, made the following set of recommendations for the development of computing programs:

  1. Program designers should be intentional in the design and implementation of programs offering authentic learning experiences that build interest and competencies for computing.
  2. Practicing teachers in schools and facilitators in out-of-school time settings should seek out opportunities and materials that suggest how to incorporate effective practices for creating authentic learning experiences in computing within an existing program that includes utilizing problem and project-based learning strategies, allowing learner choice among activities, and which takes into consideration learners’ contexts outside of school time.
  3. Preservice and in-service teacher educators and trainers of out-of-school time facilitators should ensure that educators and facilitators are equipped to engage learners in personally authentic learning experiences in computing. This includes providing ongoing opportunities for educators to learn and practice using inclusive pedagogical approaches, as well as having access to materials and resources that build on learners’ interests, identities, and backgrounds.
  4. School leaders should consider a variety of ways to provide access to authentic learning experiences for computing. These include (1) addressing challenges (e.g., lack of instructional time and teacher expertise) associated with integrating authentic computing experiences into instruction in a variety of subjects, (2) increasing access to stand-alone computing courses, and (3) ensuring schools have adequate resources such as equipment, reliable broadband internet, and time.
  5. Program providers in out-of-school settings should increase efforts to expand access to authentic learning experiences for computing through growth of opportunities and active program promotion within underserved communities and in rural areas. This includes considering ways to reduce barriers to participation such as time, cost, and transportation. It also includes offering programs multiple times or during the evening and weekends, reducing program costs or offering financial assistance, and subsidizing transportation.
  6. Program evaluators should develop and apply robust models of evaluation that take into account the distinctive features of authentic learning experiences in computing. More specifically, this includes attending to personal and professional authenticity, considering connections across settings, and to the extent possible, disaggregating findings and examining differences between and within groups (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status) for computing outcomes as a central part of model building and evaluation.
  7. There should be a broad-based effort to cultivate a network of opportunities, as well as supports for learners to navigate between them both in and out of school to increase access and opportunities for sustained engagement with computing.118

The report defines authentic as “close approximations to the work that a…professional would engage in” and “…connected to real-world problems learners’ care about and the challenges they face.” In addition to this full report, systems working to ensure edtech and teaching practices are culturally responsive, relevant, and sustaining might find resources like the Kapor Center’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining CS Framework helpful as they begin this work. While both examples focus more narrowly on computing and computer science, the principles and frameworks on which they are built are applicable to technology use across disciplines. 

Educator Support & Training: As highlighted in the previous section, the ability of educators to design powerful learning experiences supported by technology varies greatly between school systems, school buildings, and classrooms. Educators need consistent, reliable access to ongoing technical support (to ensure technology is functioning and available) and ongoing, personalized professional learning to help them design effectively with digital tools. This professional learning should meet educators where they are, no matter their current technological skill level. Some systems rely on vendors for technical support and training; however, the availability and quality of technical support and professional development opportunities, which vary greatly between edtech vendors, are factors school systems should consider as part of the procurement process. Such considerations may include asking vendors how they can help educators understand how new products might interact with or support previous purchases or adoptions or how included training may go beyond initial startup and into learning design.

Closing the digital access divide requires careful planning and funding to address infrastructure gaps in order to provide equitable access to internet connectivity both in and outside of school. Sustainability planning is essential as devices purchased with pandemic-related federal and state funding reach end-of-life and need replacement. Without planning for sustainability, the digital access divide—which narrowed due to these one-time funding sources—will again begin to widen. In this section, we’ll discuss how districts can address these challenges.

The Role of State and District Edtech Directors

According to a 2021 analysis published by the Exchange, it is estimated that the U.S. federal government, states, and school districts collectively spend between $26 and $41 billion per year on edtech materials (including digital instructional materials, networks and devices, formative and summative assessments, and professional development for educators).119 Despite this, many states and districts lack a cabinet-level department of education or administrative position—a state or district edtech director—to help ensure digital tools’ meaningful and cost-effective use. According to research from the State Educational Technology Directors Association, 45 percent of states don’t have a specific office coordinating edtech. In the 55 percent that do, that office has a variety of names, leadership roles, and placement within the broader organizational structure. Eight states call it the “Office of Educational Technology.” This office falls under or adjacent to academics/learning in other states. In contrast, in others, it falls under or adjacent to information technology.120

The responsibilities for State Educational Technology Directors can include:

  • Developing and implementing strategic plans for edtech deployment and implementation;
  • Providing leadership, advocating for policies and funding that support the effective use of edtech in schools and districts,
  • Lending support and guidance in response to rapidly changing technological landscape and cybersecurity needs;
  • Proactively identifying challenges and finding innovative solutions to improve educational outcomes through technology;
  • Collaborating with cross-agency staff, government officials and stakeholders to develop deeper understanding, guidelines, standards, and regulations governing the use and funding of technology in schools;
  • Assessing the effectiveness and impact of technology investments;
  • Ensuring the effective implementation of technology and professional learning for educators and IT staff;
  • Coordinating with both general and special education leaders;
  • Fostering collaboration, networking opportunities and knowledge sharing among educators, universities, businesses, and other organizations; and
  • Evaluating the impact of technology initiatives on student outcomes, instructional practices, and administrative processes.

By leveraging statewide or district purchasing power to negotiate favorable vendor contracts, edtech directors can secure significant savings in procuring edtech hardware, software, and services. The sharing of technology resources and services among school systems and buildings, including infrastructure, software licenses, and digital learning tools, can reduce resource duplication and costs. Edtech directors can help develop model processes and guidelines for device refresh policies based on state and local funding structures. They can also provide context-specific and nuanced guidance in education and technology policy areas, such as student data privacy, to policymakers and school district leaders. By bridging the gap between technology and pedagogy, edtech directors can help break down the silos that can prevent the effective use of edtech while ensuring the wise use of public funds.

A state or district edtech director should be familiar with pedagogy and best practices in IT management. A well-rounded edtech director will have the capacity to actively bridge pK-12 education with IT management by understanding instructional design, assessment/evaluation, professional development, technology integration, instructional design, learning theories, digital content management, Learning Management Systems, and mobile learning solutions; while also understanding data security and privacy, infrastructure management, budget and resource allocation, data-driven decision-making, vendor/contract management, stakeholder engagement/communication, and accessibility. 

By bridging the gap between policy, practice, and technology implementation, state edtech directors help ensure that edtech initiatives align with state and district needs and goals.

Closing the digital access divide requires careful planning and funding to address infrastructure gaps in order to provide equitable access to internet connectivity both in and outside of school. Sustainability planning is essential as devices purchased with pandemic-related federal and state funding reach end-of-life and need replacement. Without planning for sustainability, the digital access divide—which narrowed due to these one-time funding sources—will again begin to widen. In this section, we’ll discuss how districts can address these challenges.

Deeper Dive: Accessibility

Accessibility refers to designing and developing educational materials, resources, and technologies in a way that enables equal access and participation for all students, including students with disabilities. It also involves creating inclusive learning environments that accommodate students with diverse needs and ensuring that all students can effectively participate in educational activities. 

Accessibility Features: Features which afford a person with a disability the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability, in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use.121

Assistive Technology (AT): Technology designed to address specific barriers learners with disabilities may face when they interact with their materials. Examples of assistive technology include text-to-speech, screen readers, and speech recognition.122

Accessible Educational Materials (AEM): Print- and technology-based educational materials, including printed and electronic textbooks and related core materials that are designed or enhanced in a way that makes them usable across the widest range of learner variability, regardless of format (e.g., print, digital, graphic, audio, video, braille).123

physical accessibility

Physical Accessibility

Features allowing individuals with mobility impairments to access or control computers or mobile devices without relying on traditional keyboards and mice

visual accessibility

Visual Accessibility

Features that accommodate individuals with visual impairments

auditory accessibility

Auditory Accessibility

Features that accommodate individuals with hearing impairments

cognitive accessibility

Cognitive Accessibility

Features that help improve the clarity of information for all individuals including those with cognitive disabilities or learning differences

digital accessibility

Digital Accessibility

Features ensuring that technologies, digital tools, and educational materials are accessible to students with disabilities

language accessibility

Language Accessibility

Features supporting individuals

Six types of accessibility: physical, visual, auditory, cognitive, digital, and lingual.

Although technology can increase and enhance educational access for learners, it can also create barriers for learners with disabilities. For example, students with visual impairments who cannot modify the font size of a digital tool or who do not have the option to have the text read aloud to them might be unable to engage with the material. A student with a hearing impairment might be unable to access the content in an uncaptioned video or engage with tools that include meaningful sounds. A student who uses a screen reader might be unable to read a pdf document if it lacks proper structure, headings, alternative text for images, or logical reading order. In addition, a student with disabilities may physically need AT to access digital tools (for example, using an external switching device and scanning software instead of a mouse and keyboard.) For learners to meaningfully participate in their education, they must be able to access and engage with their educational materials.

Center on Inclusive Technology & Education Systems

Funded by the Office of Special Education Programs and managed by CAST, 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 to read stories and vignettes of districts implementing inclusive technology practices.

Key aspects of accessibility in educational tools can include:

  1. Physical accessibility: Edtech developers should design platforms and materials so students with physical disabilities can navigate them. For example, some students may need to use alternative input devices. These devices allow individuals with mobility impairments to access or control computers or mobile devices without relying on traditional keyboards and mice. Examples can include sip-and-puff switches, eye-gaze tracking systems, and specialized keyboards.
  2. Visual accessibility: Edtech tools and materials should accommodate students with visual impairments. Examples include compatibility with screen magnification software and screen reader software, high contrast settings that enhance visibility, or descriptions of visual elements within educational materials. 
  3. Auditory accessibility: Several features can make educational tools accessible to students with hearing impairments. Examples include captions, American Sign Language or transcripts for audio or video content, visual aids such as slides, diagrams, or visual illustrations, which can supplement spoken information and enhance understanding, and speech-to-text software. Classroom amplification systems can help students better understand spoken classroom instruction.
  4. Cognitive accessibility: Cognitive accessibility features help improve the clarity of information for all students, including those with cognitive disabilities or learning differences. Examples include text-to-speech and voice recognition software, text highlighting tools, graphic organizers, language simplification tools that provide alternative versions of complex language or text with reduced vocabulary or simpler syntax, and interactive and multisensory learning opportunities.
  5. Digital accessibility: Digital accessibility ensures that edtech, digital tools, and educational materials are accessible to students with disabilities. Educational institutions should adopt user interfaces that are compatible with assistive technologies, adhere to web accessibility standards (such as WCAG 2.2), ensure mobile applications are accessible to individuals with disabilities, and provide customization and personalization options.
  6. Language Accessibility: Accessible language accommodates people with Limited English Proficiency, defined as individuals who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English.124 Examples include providing multilingual versions of digital content, the ability to raise or lower the readability level of content, and creating audio and video content that accommodates users with limited literacy skills.
To better meet diverse language needs, states like Massachusetts and Florida have designed their educational technology resources to better reach and serve students who are English Learners and multilingual students and their families.

Achieving the goal of truly inclusive and accessible learning environments requires the participation of and input from a wide range of stakeholders—including the instructional technology, curriculum, special education, and information technology teams. Often, these departments are siloed and do not regularly work together to ensure all students’ needs are met. As a result, situations like the following may arise:

  • An Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team completes a functional evaluation and determines that a student needs a specific screen reader software. The IEP Team Chair puts in a request for the software, and the district purchases it. When the learner tries to use the software with their district-provided laptop, it does not work because no one ensured that the software was compatible with the operating system installed on student laptops or because the software is internet dependent, and the student doesn’t have home internet access.
  • A general education teacher finds a digital resource purchased by the district that uses videos and games to teach math skills. The teacher assumes the technology is accessible since the district purchased it but quickly finds the videos do not provide closed captioning or transcripts for students. As a result, it doesn’t support learners who are deaf and hard of hearing and those with specific learning disabilities. The teacher is frustrated and uncertain about how to support these students.
  • A caregiver with a visual disability is trying to access the list of after-school programs on their child’s school website. When they reach the website, the after-school programs are listed as images with no additional information or alternative text. The caregiver cannot use their text-to-speech program to review the list and learn what opportunities are available for their child.

School systems must break down these silos when planning, implementing, and evaluating technology purchases. It’s also important to include learners with disabilities and their families in these conversations to ensure the technology purchased meets the needs of the students who need it most. This is especially important for learning technologies students use outside of school hours. The more knowledgeable caregivers are about how specific technologies can support their child, the better prepared they will be to support their child’s learning at home.

Increasing Statewide Support of Accessible Educational Materials

For New Hampshire, 2024 marks the state’s final year as a member of an inaugural cohort of states working to “build a robust and coordinated system for providing AEM and related technologies to all learners with disabilities who need them.” Funded by a grant from the US Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs, the cohort connects New Hampshire, Georgia, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, and West Virginia with the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials for Learning (AEM Center). The effort provides cohort members with intensive technical assistance in helping learners with disabilities from early childhood through postsecondary education. The resources developed from the project will be made available nationally through the AEM Center and provide examples of how states can improve accessibility services while providing educators with the capacity to close the digital design divide for all learners.

Another key consideration is to provide educators with the time and training needed to understand the various accessibility features of digital learning tools and how to leverage them. Many accessibility features can benefit all students, not only those with specific disabilities. For example, digital textbooks and e-books can give students flexible access to course materials. Features like searchable text, interactive multimedia, highlighting, digital note-taking capabilities, adjustable font sizes, and captioning can facilitate learning for all students.

Supporting Preschool Children with Assistive Technology

To empower early childhood educators to use evidence-based assistive technology with even the youngest learners, the Miami-Dade County Community Action & Human Services Head Start Program in Florida is partnering with two organizations with external assistive technology specialists. Florida Alliance for Assistive Services & Technology (FAAST) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life for Floridians with disabilities by increasing access to assistive technology through empowerment and collaboration. Step Up AT is a customizable professional development program that coaches teachers, teacher assistants, teacher support specialists, school districts, and other agencies to adopt evidence-based AT practices that improve early learning outcomes for young children (ages 3-5) with disabilities.

The program aims to help educators plan for and use AT to support preschool students aged three to five with IEPs or students who otherwise need support. By helping educators match AT with tasks and student strengths, they can more actively engage students in their learning. The Step Up AT team has also created learning modules in English and Spanish describing how to plan for AT, developed teaching practices with guidance from the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Early Childhood, and videos demonstrating how to use the AT. The learning modules help preschool administrators, such as those with Head Start, get AT where needed and become better advocates for students with disabilities.

Physical Learning Spaces

Another important consideration is the organization of physical learning space. While the guidelines below refer to on-campus learning spaces, it’s also important to consider the role of off-campus learning spaces (such as the students’ homes). Considerations include:

  • Are on-campus learning spaces accessible to students with physical disabilities? For example, are there accessible ramps or elevators and a proposed number of accessible restrooms for student use?
  • Are the design and layout of the physical space dynamic and flexible enough to accommodate different learning activities? Can a space where educators deliver whole-class instruction be modified to facilitate individual or small-group activities? For example, flexible furniture, movable partitions, and modular setups can support easy classroom reconfiguration.
  • Can physical learning spaces facilitate both individual and collaborative work? Are there areas designed explicitly for group work and collaboration, such as breakout rooms or collaborative workstations? Are there quiet areas or zones for students who need fewer auditory distractions for individual study? 
  • Are learning spaces equipped with the necessary technology infrastructure to support the desired learning environment(s)? Examples include Wi-Fi access points, A/V equipment, and laptop storage/charging carts. Does this extend to different classroom contexts, such as providing Wi-Fi access for outdoor classrooms? 

For more information and tools for aligning physical spaces, visit the Blended Learning Universe.

Puerto Rico Focuses on STEM Learning for All

Founded in 2004, Puerto Rico’s Science, Technology, and Research Trust is on a mission to “to continually advance Puerto Rico’s economy and its citizen’s well-being”125 through its three main pillars of research & development, entrepreneurship, and public health. The Trust also recognizes the need to support a pipeline of access to STEM learning for all students on the island if it is to succeed in its mission. The Trust’s STEM Education Program focuses on STEM education public policy, strategic partnerships, and supporting the local STEM education ecosystem. The program includes activities such as STEM in the Mountain, a weeklong summer program that offers hands-on STEM learning to 5th through 8th grade students. To meet students where they are, the program has also developed STEM Boxed Kits delivered to students’ homes. The kits provide everything necessary to provide access to experiential STEM learning and begin to build early pathways to STEM careers.

For digital devices and tools to be effective, usable, and meaningful, they must be accessible to all. The following strategies can help school systems ensure the accessibility of their digital infrastructure:

  • Develop a procurement team including IT staff, assistive technology specialists, special and general education staff, curriculum leaders, procurement directors, and EL specialists to create an accessibility rubric the district must use before procurement.
  • When possible, hire an AT specialist who can support the evaluation, procurement, training, and implementation of AT, IT, or AEM or work with an organization (such as an Education Service Agency) to do so. If this is not possible, work with the State AT Act program or community partners (e.g., Easter Seals and local groups) to contract the appropriate AT specialist or EL specialist.
  • When needed, hire an EL specialist who can support the evaluation, procurement, training, and implementation of technology tools to support students and families/caregivers no matter their home language.
  • Ensure all educators have the knowledge, time, and capacity to ensure all educational materials are accessible—including websites, classwork and homework, and communications to staff and families.
  • Accessible materials should be available both internally and externally for all constituents. Consider the accessibility training modules from the U.S. Department of Education’s AEM Center and the digital accessibility video series from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
  • Provide opportunities for various experts and specialists (e.g., IT, special educators, EL specialists, general educators, and related service providers) to discuss and collaborate on evaluating, implementing, and using edtech and AT in the classroom.
  • Partner with State AT Act Programs, which provide free AT loans for learners with disabilities before purchasing. For more on AT, see the AT section below.
  • Develop an easily findable and searchable directory with all district technology resources and their accessibility features (including language translation services) and all available district assistive technology.
  • Ensure all district and school forms, event registrations, and meetings include areas for participants and attendees to indicate accessibility needs before events and meetings. Translate school communications into multiple languages, reflecting the needs of students and families in specific communities.126
  • When discussing their needs and services, include potentially impacted individuals in all teams, committees, and meetings.
  • Form standing groups inclusive of caregivers, students with disabilities, parents, or family members of students with disabilities, and ELs to advise on issues of accessibility and technology procurement and provision. Wherever possible, create specific structured connections between these and all professional groups mentioned above.

State Partnership Brings Assistive Technology Support to Oklahomans

The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) has partnered with Oklahoma ABLE Tech, the state’s Assistive Technology (AT) Act program, to provide AT and information services for children. ABLE Tech provides training, technical assistance, information, and public awareness to help individuals with disabilities, their caregivers/families, service providers, and agencies so they can learn about and improve AT service delivery for students with disabilities. ABLE Tech also provides AT demonstrations, short-term loans, re-utilized devices, and alternative financing options to help Oklahomans make informed decisions about AT devices and acquire needed AT for free or at a reduced cost.
ABLE Tech helps local educational agencies increase skills, knowledge, and competencies related to AT laws, policies, procedures, and practices. They support the quality provision of AT devices and services for students with disabilities, helping them be more independent in the least restrictive environment and progress toward academic standards. ABLE Tech supports districts in implementing the Quality Indicators for AT (QIAT) Service Delivery in the Schools and the Quality Indicators for the Provision of AEM and Technology in the Schools. At the state level, ABLE Tech staff have provided expertise on multiple panels, councils, and committees in areas including assessment, data, MTSS, and procurement, resulting in the extension of AT services.
Due to increased OSDE funding, AT demonstrations and short-term AT loans for educational purposes have increased over the past decade, supporting the assistive technology needs of thousands of Oklahomans, from infants to adults.

Accessibility Resources

By considering accessibility in educational tools, educators and developers can create inclusive learning experiences that address the needs of all students, promoting equal opportunities for participation, engagement, and achievement. For more on accessibility, consider resources such as the following:

  • OET Digital Accessibility Webpage: OET launched a new landing page for accessibility resources and funding opportunities available in the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Digital Accessibility Video Series: The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights created 20 brief videos on the importance of accessibility and how to create digitally accessible materials.
  • Accessibility Guide for Creating Materials: The National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision developed simple how-to guides to ensure your documents, QR codes, and surveys are accessible.
  • Accessibility Resources for Developers & Document Authors: The Social Security Administration shares resources they use to create accessible digital content, including a web accessibility testing tool, how to add alternative text, and accessibility checklists.
  • The Office of Special Education Programs, part of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, is dedicated to improving results for infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities ages birth through 21 by providing leadership and financial support to assist states and local districts. Resources include Tools for Your Toolbox and information about Section 508 Accessibility
  • OCR Digital Accessibility Web Page: The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights provides a landing page for guidance and technical assistance about educational institutions’ legal obligations with respect to digital accessibility.

By considering the accessibility of educational tools, educators and developers can create inclusive learning experiences that address the needs of all students, promoting equal opportunities for participation, engagement, and achievement.

Deeper Dive: Digital Infrastructure

Digital infrastructure refers to the resources that make digital systems possible, as well as how individuals and organizations access and use these resources.127 It includes various components and networks supporting the transfer, storage, and communication of data and digital resources. In education, digital infrastructure can include: 

  • Hardware and devices: These include computers, laptops, tablets, and other devices that provide access to digital learning materials and platforms.
  • Reliable, high-speed internet connectivity: This is defined by the federal government as 100 megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical network capacity.128
  • Learning Management Systems (LMS): Learning Management Systems are online platforms for managing and delivering course materials, assignments, assessments, and educational content.  
  • Online Content and Resources: These can include e-books, interactive multimedia resources, educational videos, online tutorials, and virtual simulations.
  • Communication & Collaboration Tools: These tools, such as video conferencing and shared document editing platforms, support positive relationship building between students and educators.
  • Assessment and Feedback Systems: These systems are used for online assessments, quizzes, and exams and may include tools for automated grading. 
  • Data Management and Analytics Systems: These systems collect, manage, and analyze data related to student performance, engagement, and learning outcomes.
  • Cybersecurity and Privacy Protections: These include hardware and software tools such as web filtering, firewalls, encryption, and secure authentication.

Digital infrastructure sets the stage for educational design, which empowers students and educators to leverage technology for effective teaching and learning. On-campus access to these resources and tools is not enough; students and educators also need access when off-campus to fully realize the potential of “everywhere, all-the-time” learning. This vision is shared by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which announced its Learn Without Limits initiative in June 2023129 to support off-campus access. In 2023, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology began releasing a series of technical assistance briefs to provide technical assistance to state and district leaders. These briefs, in addition to those resources provided by the Student Privacy Policy Office and the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency offer robust assistance to ensure preparedness of educational digital infrastructure.

Digital Infrastructure Beyond Schools

Despite significant growth in school technology use, many learners, families/caregivers, and communities still lack access to reliable, high-speed broadband and technology tools. In the United States, more than 18 million households continue to face challenges gaining access to reliable, high-speed broadband, and households earning less than $30,000 per year are significantly less likely to have a computer than households making more than $100,000.130 While 40 percent of K-12 learners identify as Black, Hispanic, or Native American, a disproportionately greater percentage of unconnected learners (54 percent) identify as Black, Hispanic, or Native American. Furthermore, Black and Hispanic learners are less likely to have a computer at home compared to white peers.131 Overall, an estimated 15–16 million K-12 learners do not have sufficient access to reliable, high-speed broadband and technology tools for learning.132

Advancing Digital Equity for All

In Spring 2022, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology committed to advancing digital equity through the Digital Equity Education Roundtables (DEER) Initiative. Through DEER, The Office of Educational Technology hosted a series of national conversations with leaders from community-based organizations, families, and learners furthest from digital opportunities. The resource “Advancing Digital Equity for All: Community-Based Recommendations for Developing Effective Digital Equity Plans to Close the Digital Divide and Enable Technology-Empowered Learning” illuminates insights from these conversations to highlight the barriers faced by learner communities and promising solutions for increasing access to technology for learning.

Although the inequity of digital access has been a long-standing problem for United States school systems and communities, the COVID-19 pandemic brought these challenges to the forefront when educators were forced to implement emergency remote learning. Many students did not have access to personal computers, laptops, or tablets at home, making it challenging to participate in online classes and complete assignments. Students with limited or unreliable home internet access had difficulty accessing educational resources and participating in high-bandwidth activities such as videoconferencing. Other factors contributing to inequitable learning experiences included inadequate professional learning and technical support; and home environment challenges such as insufficient space, noise distractions, or lack of a suitable study/teaching area. Students with disabilities faced additional challenges accessing online content not properly designed for accessibility.133 The severity of these issues varied based on factors such as socioeconomic status, geographical location, and the resources available in individual school systems. These challenges existed before the pandemic and continue to contribute to educational inequities.

The causes of the digital divide are nuanced and complex but can be categorized into three components of access: availability, affordability, and adoption.


Is There Sufficient Infrastructure and Coverage to Deliver Reliable, High-Speed Wired or Wireless Broadband Service and Technology Tools for Learning?

Availability refers to the level and sufficiency of coverage in delivering reliable, high-speed wired or wireless broadband services and the 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. Research shows that the quality and type of home broadband access directly impacts learner school participation,134 performance outcomes, and digital literacy.135 Learners with insufficient access are also less likely to plan for postsecondary education, affecting their lifetime potential for high earnings.136

Access to devices suitable for learning, such as laptops, Chromebooks, and tablets, is another critical consideration for school systems. Lower-income families are less likely to own personal devices appropriate for learning; Pew research found that a quarter of low-income teens lack access to a computer at home.137 Even if there is a computer in the home, it may have to be shared by multiple family members, including other school-age children. In addition, while many digital tools are web-based, they may not work equally well on all devices—for example, an educational tool might work in a computer web browser but not on a tablet. School systems purchasing digital tools need to ensure they will work on a wide range of devices (including smartphones) and are compatible with devices provided by the school system. If school systems provide students with devices to take home, they must budget for device replacement cycles (generally every 3-5 years),138 repairs, and technical support.

While there is no single solution to address the internet and device availability challenges many students face, school systems and states are finding creative solutions appropriate for their specific context. Advancing Digital Equity for All highlights some of these solutions in detail. Examples include providing digital devices and wireless hotspots for learners, installing wireless networks on school buses, partnering with internet service providers (ISPs) to provide community internet access, and leveraging community partnerships to provide internet access in public spaces.

In the long term, bringing reliable, high-speed broadband to underserved areas requires infrastructure development, policy initiatives, and cooperative efforts among various stakeholders. Collaboration between governments (local, state, federal, and tribal), ISPs, community agencies, nonprofit organizations, chambers of commerce, industry and trade associations, and other stakeholders is crucial for successful broadband deployment. Public-private partnerships can leverage private-sector investment in broadband infrastructure to benefit larger communities.

Partnering with Local Government and Community Agencies with HCS EdConnect 

When schools transitioned to emergency remote learning in 2020, the Chattanooga, Tennessee community recognized that many students lacked the home internet access necessary to participate. To address the challenge, Hamilton County Schools (HCS), Hamilton County, the City of Chattanooga, the Enterprises Center of Chattanooga, and various local funders partnered to provide free, reliable, high-speed internet access to qualifying Hamilton County families. They named the partnership HCS EdConnect.

Identifying students and families who needed home internet access and encouraging them to participate in the program was the biggest challenge HCS faced. Initially, the school system reached out to students who qualified for Free and Reduced Price Meals. As of Spring 2023, more than 16,000 students were connected to reliable high-speed internet at no charge, representing approximately one-third of the students in the district. The school system continues working to identify families that have not yet opted into this free service.

Anecdotal information from teachers, students, and parents indicates that reliable high-speed internet access at home has made a difference for program participants. Boston University is implementing a qualitative research study to study the program further. Preliminary research findings indicate nearly all the families participating in HCS EdConnect reported positive attitudes toward the use of technology in education.

Collaboration and Research Lay the Foundation for CT State Digital Equity Plan

Prior commitments and policies designed to close the digital divide have helped accelerate the development of Connecticut’s Digital Equity Plan, led through its Department of Administrative Services’ Commission for Educational Technology.
During the pandemic, the state’s governor established the Everybody Learns initiative, which included purchasing and rapidly deploying more than 140,000 student computers and provisioning 50,000 home internet connections. During the same period, the state passed legislation that gave Connecticut advanced insights into the digital divide. Public Act 21-159 established a statewide broadband mapping hub with provider data reflecting nearly universal availability but only a 75 percent adoption rate of high-speed service across the state. These insights enabled Connecticut to focus on the economic, behavioral, and trust barriers to achieving digital equity.
Research into these barriers has come through strong interagency collaboration and partnerships with the University of Connecticut’s School of Public Policy and local stakeholder groups. Intensive focus group discussions, statewide resident surveys, and detailed indexing of existing programs point to the need for broader access to training and support for residents, and trusted resources that equip them with affordable connections and devices that meet their needs. While still in development, Connecticut’s Digital Equity Plan will aim to put solutions in place that leverage efficiencies at the state and regional level while capitalizing on local partners that have earned the trust of residents to engage fully in today’s digital world for learning, work, health, and wellbeing.


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 reliable, high-speed broadband connection and technology tools for learning.139 High internet service costs disproportionately impact low-income families, who may struggle to allocate funds for internet service while meeting basic needs such as food, gas, shelter, and electricity. This barrier also exists at the community level, particularly for Tribal communities.140 In addition, a lack of competition between providers in many areas results in higher prices and lower-quality service.

Bringing Internet Access to Alaskan Tribal Lands

While the digital access divide may be closing quickly in much of the country, geography and a lack of physical infrastructure present unique challenges in those locations still waiting for reliable broadband. Through a $35M grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, 73 Alaska Native Tribal governments, Alaska Native Corporations, and tribal organizations will benefit from a Use and Adoption award.

Beginning with a needs assessment and input from target populations, the project will eventually increase access to connectivity and devices. Recognizing that digital health, safety, & citizenship are key components of digital access, the project will also include designing and implementing a training program to build digital skills and familiarity with broadband resources and technology among Alaskan Native populations.

When completed, the project will serve 62 Alaskan Native communities, provide subsidized internet service for an estimated 2,777 Alaskan Native households, provide broadband devices to an estimated 8,877 individuals, and employ and train 10 IT technicians. This is to say nothing of the increased educational opportunities, employment upskilling, and digital cultural possibilities that will be available for generations to come.

The cost of devices suitable for learning also challenges families. Lower-cost devices like Chromebooks or refurbished computers can meet the needs of some students but are not suitable for all learners and may need to be shared by multiple family members. Older machines that use operating systems that have reached end-of-life or have limited memory or processor speeds may be unable to run newer applications. Learners with disabilities might have access to assistive technology and devices at school but not at home due to cost. Challenges like these can make it difficult for students to participate in “everywhere, all-the-time” learning. 

Initiatives and partnerships at the federal, state, and local levels can help mitigate the affordability barriers to internet access. In December 2021, Congress authorized the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a $14B program, to ensure all households can afford broadband for education, employment, and more. The ACP allows qualifying households to reduce their internet costs by up to $30/month ($75/month on Tribal lands). Under the White House’s Get Internet initiative, several companies further committed to offering 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.141

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

Although programs like those described above can help address affordability issues, more resources and expanded eligibility for affordable broadband programs are still needed. Even with subsidies, devices, and reliable, high-speed internet, plans are still unaffordable for many families. The low-cost broadband plans available may not be robust enough to meet the needs of learners, especially when multiple family members need to use the connection simultaneously. Eligibility restrictions such as immigration and refugee status may also prevent families from participating. Credit checks, deposit requirements, and long-term contract requirements may also pose barriers. In addition, these programs do not address the challenges of homeless or migrant students or students who move frequently. Highly mobile learners need reliable, high-speed broadband connections that do not require them to be in a specific location. Some programs like ACP protect consumers by allowing eligible households to access the benefit regardless of credit status, past due balances, or prior debt.142

VT Purchasing Consortia Increases Spending Power of Rural Districts

Vermont has a total student population of approximately 83,000—equal to that of a single large urban school district—spread out across several districts within the state. But the smaller size of these often-rural districts doesn’t stop them from provisioning access to technology tools at a fair price for all students. Through Vita-Learn, a statewide non-profit dedicated to professional learning, innovative practices, and improved use of edtech, member districts can take advantage of these tools at fractions of the price any of the smaller districts or schools could negotiate on their own. Consortia like Vermont’s can also create the secondary benefit of a common set of tools used across districts in a region or state, increasing the chance an educator or student moving from one district to another will have familiarity with these tools and decreasing the costs in time and money in getting new teachers up to speed with a school or district’s array of resources.

Washington State Grant Program Builds District Capacity for Edtech Use

Seventy percent of Washington’s school districts are categorized as rural/remote and are often less likely than their urban counterparts to adequately raise sufficient local funding to support digital teaching and learning. In 2021, Washington HB 1365 established the “Digital Equity and Inclusion Grant” program to fund districts in three primary areas: attaining a 1:1 student-to-learning device ratio, expanding technical support and training for educators, and developing district-based and school-based capacity to assist families and students. With this recent charge from the state legislature, the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) actively helps rural/remote districts, which cannot often apply for and manage grants.  

Several small, rural, and remote districts have benefitted from the dedicated funds and additional assistance from OSPI. Hoquiam School District, a remote community located on the state’s Western edge, received grant funds for professional learning equipment but needed more internal capacity to support the effective integration of technology into instruction. OSPI worked with district leaders and brought in technology directors from peer districts to share resources and solve issues collaboratively. 

OSPI’s work on the Digital Equity and Inclusion Grant program demonstrates how dedicated funding and technical assistance for rural/remote and small districts allows them to build the technological and human capacities necessary to meet the specific needs of their communities.


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 broadband access at the necessary speed, quality, and capacity; and the digital skills necessary to participate online, on a personal device, and using 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.143

Providing students with the devices and high-speed internet needed for learning outside school hours is not enough. Focusing on family/caregiver digital inclusion and skills development is equally important. For example, communication between schools and families often relies heavily on digital tools such as email, online portals, or messaging apps. When families/caregivers lack digital literacy skills, it becomes more challenging for schools and teachers to effectively communicate important information, updates, or individual student progress. This gap in skills can hinder parental engagement, making it difficult for schools to establish strong home-school partnerships and build trust. In addition, families/caregivers without digital literacy skills may not know how to help educate their children about digital health, safety, and citizenship. Without family guidance, students may be at a higher risk of encountering online dangers or engaging in inappropriate online behavior. (See Digital Health, Safety, and Citizenship for more information.)

Digital equity and adoption are intersectional issues. The most successful strategies involve dialogue with various stakeholders, including government agencies, community anchor institutions, community-based organizations, tribes, private companies, impacted community members, families/caregivers, and students.

Digital Harbor Foundations Serves as an Example of Long-Term Innovation Investment

Originally “born in Baltimore and dedicated to creating pathways to opportunity through technology,”144 Maryland’s Digital Harbor Foundation has expanded its efforts globally since opening its Tech Center in a defunct recreation center in 2013. Dedicated to digital equity for everyone, diversity in the tech sector, innovative STEM education, and technology for the public good. Digital Harbor’s Center of Excellence works “directly with school districts, communities, classroom teachers, and out-of-school educators to scale best-in-class STEM learning opportunities to ensure all students have access to these transformative learning opportunities.”145 These efforts include educator professional development, community workshops, and a digital learning hub launched in 2023 “aimed at reaching more than 100 educators to provide content that empowers them to build youth digital literacy.” Digital Harbor also provides fiscal support to national and international efforts such as the Ukraine Math & Science Achievement Fund. “In addition to undergraduate scholarships,” the fund provides “flexible funding that responds to students’ dynamic circumstances, as well as infrastructure gifts.”146 The Digital Harbor Foundation is an example of what’s possible when public-private partnerships focus on closing the digital divides.

Similar to the cultural sensitivity required in selecting edtech tools mentioned above, building trust is a key component of digital adoption and literacy education. Members of historically marginalized communities often do not trust federal and state governments and private companies. Factors such as immigration status and a history of discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals may cause families/caregivers to be wary of sharing information. Some Indigenous communities distrust government agencies and systems due to past and current exclusionary practices.147 Families/caregivers who had negative experiences with low-cost connectivity programs in the past (such as poor service, unexpected fees, or required credit checks) may also be reluctant to apply for them again. Language and cultural barriers can also pose challenges to adoption.

Providing Multilingual Digital Literacy Support for Learners, Families, and Caregivers

Located just outside of Portland, Oregon, the Beaverton School District serves more than 40,000 students, approximately 24 percent of whom identify as Latino. When the schools first launched their 1-to-1 program in 2014, they discovered not all students had equitable access to reliable, high-speed internet at home. They then implemented several strategies to help bridge the gap. As they began the work, they soon discovered many of their Spanish-speaking parents and guardians could not be contacted via email, creating barriers to communication. Some parents had never created an email address, while others had one but rarely used it and didn’t provide it to the school. Realizing they needed to engage their Spanish-speaking parent community with digital literacy and citizenship education, the district began hosting monthly Latino parent technology nights in Spanish in collaboration with their community liaison.

To publicize the event without relying on email or other digital communication tools, district personnel recorded a message about the event in Spanish that was sent to parents by the school autodialer. They also recruited student volunteers from their Latinos Unidos club to spread the word about the parent night to the broader community. The district helped remove attendance barriers by providing on-site daycare, refreshments, and interpreters. The goals of the events were to help parents stay abreast of district activities, improve communication with their child’s teachers, and help parents support their children with digital citizenship information. The district also provided hands-on computer training at every meeting, teaching such tasks as:

  • Establishing email accounts
  • Accessing student attendance and academic records
  • Navigating the school district web page and accessing it in Spanish
  • Practicing locating essential information
  • Communicating follow-up information for parent and caregiver support

By cultivating the digital skills of their Spanish-speaking families over several years, Beaverton has been able to improve communications and create a more participatory and inclusive school culture.

Accurate data is another important component of digital adoption. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many school systems did not have accurate information about home internet connectivity and use, making it difficult to know which learners might have trouble participating reliably in emergency remote learning and why. For instance, surveys about home internet access and devices must be carefully worded and administered to ensure the accuracy of the data collected. A household might report access to devices and the internet, but that connectivity might be limited to a single phone.

Electronically administered surveys requiring an internet connection may actually exclude the people needing the most help. While many school systems use Free and Reduced Lunch eligibility as a proxy indicator for poverty, it may not provide an accurate picture of home internet connectivity and use unless combined with survey data. Through qualitative research, district leaders have reported that some families prioritize internet access despite income level, and vice versa.148 Inaccurate data can lead to funding and program decisions which widen the digital divide.

Supporting digital adoption among families/caregivers is a complex, multifaceted challenge that requires multi-stakeholder collaboration and iterative processes to address. However, the benefits to learners and their families and the opportunity to build school/home relationships make it worthwhile.

Deeper Dive: Digital Health, Safety, and Citizenship

In the early days of digital connectivity, the internet was called the “information superhighway”—an apt metaphor for considering digital health, safety, and citizenship for students and educators. Like a highway, internet access can take users to many places. Some provide tremendous opportunities for learning, community building, socialization, and exploration. Others are potentially harmful or dangerous. In the same way young drivers must learn the rules before getting behind the wheel, districts should plan to build digital health, safety, and citizenship skills before providing access to connectivity and devices.

In addition to in-school concerns about digital health, safety, and citizenship, schools face increased concerns with out-of-school access. Although school and district networks use content filtering per federal requirement, 94 percent of 8-18-year-olds have a smartphone149 provided by their families, not by a school or district, often with unfiltered, 24/7 internet access. Students often use digital devices long before they set foot on a school campus and from a very young age. The 2023 U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory on social media and youth mental health, the American Psychological Association’s health advisory on social media use in adolescence, and news headlines discussing the challenges of student phone use in schools have raised key concerns about social use of technology distracting from schooling or contributing to negative peer dynamics. Schools face growing pressure to attend to the larger context of student technology use and concerns surrounding it, even outside of school hours and on commercial digital platforms.

Students and families can benefit from guidance in navigating the safe and healthy use of digital platforms and devices, both in and out of school. According to a 2022 report from Common Sense Media, 43 percent of children ages 8-12 have a smartphone. Nearly 40 percent use social media even though age 13 is generally the required minimum age used by social media platforms in the U.S.150

digital health

Digital Healthy: The ability of individuals to maintain a healthy and balanced relationship with technology and the digital world.

digital safety

Digital Safety: Protecting individuals from online risks and ensuring their privacy and security while using digital technologies.

digital citizenship

Digital Citizenship: Appropriate, responsible behavior when using technology.

Despite being concerned over their children’s social and recreational technology use, many adults admit to not setting the best example. More than 3 out of 5 (62 percent) parents surveyed by MyVision said their tech use influences their children, and 72 percent feel it’s a negative influence.151 A majority of parents report that their phone can get in the way of spending quality time with their children; roughly seven in ten parents (68 percent) say they are at least sometimes distracted by their smartphone, with 17 percent saying this happens often.152 The MyVision survey found that 65 percent of parents do not monitor their screen time use,153 and research found a significant association between parental phubbing (the act of snubbing a physically present person in favor of a mobile phone) and student academic performance.154 Given the challenges adults face managing digital device use,155 it is essential for schools and parents to work together to help students develop these critical digital health, safety, and citizenship skills. 

Students may already be “driving” before they get to school, but without having the necessary knowledge and skills to do so safely and wisely. Just as parents and families play a significant role in student academic achievement, they also play a significant role in the development of student technology habits, making it all the more important that schools and families work together to benefit students. 

As community organizations, schools are uniquely positioned to help bridge this gap in understanding and may need guidance in seeking to communicate about out-of-school activities and habits. The National Center on Safe, Supportive Learning Environments cites the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships to support the development of family engagement strategies, policies, and programs. The framework outlines the challenges, essential conditions, policy and program goals, and capacity outcomes for building family-school partnerships. While the framework was designed for building family-school partnerships more broadly, it is well suited for digital health, safety, and citizenship capacity building among educators, families, and students. Key to the framework is an understanding that both schools and families/caregivers have areas of growth in building their capacities to communicate and collaborate in supporting student learning.

The Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships Version 2 outlines the Challenge, the Essential Conditions, The Program and Policy Goals, and the Capacity Outcomes for building Family-School Partnerships.
This work by Organizing Engagement is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

By approaching digital health, safety, and citizenship education holistically and engaging families as partners, school districts can build the capacity of both parents and students to use technology wisely. There has been considerable research on the importance of parent/caregiver involvement and the importance of fostering school-family partnerships to enhance the academic, social, and emotional learning for children and adolescents.156 Bringing parents/caregivers into the conversation about digital health, safety, and citizenship can support students while building the school-family relationships critical for academic success. Conversely, by helping students and families differentiate between productive and non-productive online activities and engaging them in more nuanced conversations about digital health, safety, and citizenship, educators can build the capacity of their entire school community to use technology meaningfully and wisely.

Kansas District Takes Planned Approach to Digital Citizenship

When leaders of Wichita Public Schools considered how they would build digital citizenship into the learning of every student, the 94-site district knew they needed to take a measured approach. The result was a 3-year plan that focused on middle schools the first year, elementary the second, and high schools the third. The district developed common teaching strategies and provided professional learning for teachers to build their capacity. The team leading the charge included the district’s Chief Information Officer, Digital Literacy Coordinator, and 12 instructional learning coaches/primary digital citizenship coaches. The core team meets monthly to share new resources, provide professional development, share best practices, address challenges, and offer collaborative support. Keys to Wichita’s success include identifying expert teachers to lead professional learning and offering insights and alignment to state standards and initiatives such as computer science, social emotional learning, computer literacy, and media literacy.

Digital Health

Digital Health and well-being refers to the ability of individuals to maintain a healthy and balanced relationship with technology and the digital world. It recognizes the benefits of technology and the potential negative impacts of excessive or unhealthy technology use, including strategies to help promote physical, mental, and emotional well-being in digital usage. Some aspects of digital health include:

  • Mindful Technology Use: Technology serves many different purposes. It can support formal learning (such as students using synchronous editing software to collaborate with others on a class project) and interest-driven informal learning (such as the student who learns how to knit from YouTube and online forums). It can also be used casually or socially (such as playing video games or scrolling through social media). Mindful technology users are thoughtful and intentional about how they use technology. They know how digital interactions impact mental and emotional well-being and are intentional about the volume and content of their digital media engagement. 
  • Setting Digital Boundaries: Setting boundaries is an important aspect of technology use. Roughly six in ten parents say they spend too much time on their smartphones, while a third say they spend too much time on social media.157 Similarly, a students working on homework assignments can easily get distracted by social media notifications and quickly find themselves off task. Learning to manage and limit these distractions and balancing online and offline activities is a valuable collection of skills and habits. Educating parents about strategies such as creating family media plans, device-free family dinners, and plugging in devices in a centralized location at night can help build the capacity of the entire family to engage appropriately with digital media.
  • Maintaining Healthy Sleep Routines: Research shows that the light emitted by digital devices can interfere with sleep, especially before bedtime.158 Digital health emphasizes the importance of maintaining a healthy sleep routine, including avoiding screens for at least an hour before sleep and keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom to improve sleep quality and overall well-being. Healthy sleep routines can play a key role in academic success.159

Research in this area is ongoing. The Digital Wellness Lab, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health, and the Harvard Center for Digital Thriving are resources updated regularly with the latest evidence and recommendations.

Incorporating Hawaiian Values and Digital Citizenship into Computer Science Education

Hawai’i is a culturally unique state. To help ensure that its educational system and content are culturally relevant and connected to Hawaiian values, the Hawai’i Department of Education (HI DOE) developed the Ha Framework, a state-wide framework to develop skills, behaviors, and dispositions consistent with Hawai’i’s unique context and honor the qualities and values of its indigenous language and culture. When state legislation mandated that Computer Science (CS) education be offered to all K-12 students, the HI DOE leveraged the Ha Framework and an existing digital citizenship initiative, Akamai Digital Citizenship: Show Aloha in Person and Online, to ensure CS offerings explored ways for individuals and communities to influence computing through their behaviors, culture, and social interactions. By incorporating computer science and digital citizenship into the Ha Framework, the HI DOE and their stakeholder team are helping ensure the new concepts are relevant to students and families.

Digital Safety

Digital safety focuses on protecting individuals from online risks and ensuring their privacy and security while using digital technologies. Following our safe driving metaphor, digital safety is akin to understanding the “rules of the road.” It involves adopting measures to safeguard personal information, avoiding cyber threats, and preventing unauthorized access to sensitive data. Digital safety also encompasses educating individuals about online dangers, such as phishing scams, identity theft, cyberbullying and online harassment, and promoting responsible digital citizenship.

Key elements of digital safety include:

  • Privacy: Students should understand how to protect their personal information online and the importance of doing so. They should understand the risks of sharing sensitive information online, such as their full name, address, phone number, or financial information. Districts should also be transparent with students and families about activity monitoring on school system-owned devices and communicate the context and justification behind monitoring systems. As mentioned previously, emerging artificial intelligence technologies can pose privacy concerns as large language models feed on the information shared with them and should only be utilized in education systems when data privacy and anonymity can be assured and verified.
  • Cybersecurity: Students should understand the risks of malware, phishing, hacking, and other cyber threats. Examples of good cyber hygiene include:
    • Teaching students how to create secure passphrases for online accounts (and not to share them with others).
    • Knowing how to recognize phishing emails and suspicious links and what to do when encountering them.
    • Being aware of social engineering techniques and thinking critically before sharing information with others.
    • Not downloading files from unknown sources.
    • Keeping personal devices updated with security patches
  • Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets. It can occur through SMS, text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else, causing embarrassment or humiliation.160
  • Online Harassment: Online harassment and abuse include various harmful and sometimes illegal behaviors perpetrated through technology. Online harassment and abuse take many forms, including the non-consensual distribution of intimate digital images; cyberstalking; sextortion; doxing; malicious deep fakes; gendered disinformation; rape and death threats; the online recruitment and exploitation of victims of sex trafficking; and various forms of technology-facilitated intimate partner abuse.161

Building Media Literacy into State Standards

Media literacy is a key component of both active use and digital citizenship, and states like Delaware are taking steps to ensure all students are engaged, analytical, and informed media consumers. The state passed S.B. 195 in 2022, requiring the inclusion of media literacy standards for K-12 classrooms. The law allows media literacy to “be incorporated into existing curricula standards” and states that “media literacy curricula is needed to guarantee the vitality of American democracy and students’ ability to engage in civic life.” The draft standards draw on the ISTE student standards and the American Association of School Libraries Student Standards and will be implemented in the 2024-2025 school year. Guiding the work, “The Digital Citizenship Education Act” offers the following definitions:

“Media literacy” means the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and take action with all forms of communication and encompasses the foundational skills of digital citizenship and internet safety, including the norms of appropriate, responsible, ethical, and healthy behavior, and cyberbullying prevention.

“Digital citizenship” means the diverse set of skills related to participating in digital platforms, including the norms of appropriate, responsible, and healthy behavior.

Digital Citizenship

Digital citizenship is appropriate, responsible behavior when using technology.162 It encompasses the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to navigate the digital world respectfully and responsibly. Good digital citizens engage positively and constructively in online communities and possess good digital literacy and critical thinking skills. Key elements of good digital citizenship include:

  • Responsible Online Behavior: Digital citizenship emphasizes the importance of respectful and responsible online behavior, including treating others with kindness and empathy, being mindful of the impact of one’s words and actions in digital spaces, and adhering to ethical standards. Good digital citizens understand the consequences of cyberbullying, harassment, and sharing inappropriate or harmful content.
  • Managing One’s Digital Footprint and Reputation: Good digital citizens realize that everything we do online leaves a digital footprint. They understand the importance of managing and curating one’s digital presence and are mindful of the potential impact of online actions on personal and professional reputation. They understand the long-term consequences of sharing and posting personal content online.
  • Media Literacy: Media literacy includes the skills associated with using technology to enable users to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate information; and developing digital citizenship and the responsible use of technology.163 Good digital citizens can effectively and critically navigate digital spaces. They possess the ability to find, evaluate, and use information from online sources and understand how to communicate, collaborate, and create content using digital tools.
  • Understanding Copyright and Intellectual Property: Digital citizenship promotes respect for copyright laws and intellectual property rights. It encourages proper citation and attribution when using or sharing the work of others and discourages plagiarism or copyright infringement. It also teaches students to understand their rights as content creators.
  • Algorithmic Literacy: AI has exponentially increased the need for students to understand and be able to critically analyze algorithms and how they impact our online and offline lives. Algorithmic literacy includes knowledge of the underlying principles, processes, and biases that shape algorithms164 and their implications for individuals, society, and decision-making. It also includes understanding how to interact effectively with AI and the ethical implications of using generative AI tools such as ChatGPT.

Teaching children and teens digital citizenship skills can help prevent cyberbullying and its negative effects. When children learn positive online behaviors, they can use social media in productive ways.

Southwestern Pennsylvania Engaged in Decade-long Dedication to Digital Health, Safety, and Citizenship

Allegheny County Intermediate Unit 3 supports the work and implementation of digital citizenship across 42 districts in Southwest Pennsylvania. With generous support from the Grable Foundation and in partnership with Common Sense Media, Unit 3 has worked with districts and other organizations in Greater Pittsburgh to provide innovative resources and support to help educators, families, and students develop the skills they need to harness the power of technology for learning. The partnership aims to help kids and teens in the Greater Pittsburgh area thrive as learners, leaders, and citizens in this digital age. As a result, the area has seen strong public-private partnerships and relationships, positive trends in impact data, customized support across 42 districts, and grants to support innovative learning across southwest Pennsylvania, provided by the local Remake Learning Network. Key to this success has been a strong dissemination plan, role-alike meetings held once a month, a strong professional learning plan, and inviting teachers to present with youth about their experience with the Common Sense digital citizenship resources.

Ten questions schools and districts can ask to help support students’ digital health and safety:

  1. Does your school or district have a clearly articulated vision of digital health and safety for students at all levels and does it account for possible risks related to student demographics?
  2. How are you collecting data and evidence to better understand the digital health and safety needs of students, families, and employees within your district or schools (e.g., needs assessments, climate surveys, incident reports)?
  3. What measurable goals have you established for the digital health, safety, and mental well-being of students?
  4. How might students and families be included in assessing needs, setting district and school goals, and designing learning opportunities?
  5. What supports are necessary and do you have in place to ensure key staff (e.g., administrators, school counselors, social workers, educators) have an adequate understanding of and capacity to respond to the unique needs involving support of student digital health and safety?
  6. What emergency resources, procedures, and supports are in place to support in moments of crisis regarding digital health and safety?
  7. What curricular, extra-, or co-curricular inclusion supports can be or have been established to support student digital health and safety?
  8. What external relationships can be or have been established to augment school and district capacity to support student digital health and safety?
  9. How do you plan to build community awareness and support of these needs, goals, and efforts?
  10. What ongoing funding sources (e.g., Title II, Title IV grants) can or will you leverage to support these efforts?165

Planning, implementing, and evaluating the curricular components of question seven above requires planning that answers key questions such as those below:

  • What are key expectations for digital health, safety, and citizenship actions and understandings at each grade level?
  • Where will instruction in digital health, safety, and citizenship live within curricula as well as the academic day and year?

The ubiquity of social media and digital tools presents the challenge and opportunity for schools and districts to partner with families and caregivers to make sure all students have what they need to maintain their digital health and safety. By integrating digital health tools, fostering digital safety practices, and nurturing digital wellness habits, students can leverage the benefits of technology while safeguarding their physical and mental health.

Protecting Student Data Privacy

In addition to teaching students how to protect their privacy online, school officials, families, and software developers should be mindful of how data privacy, confidentiality, and security practices affect students. Schools and districts should tell students and parents what kind of student data the school or third parties (e.g., online educational service providers) are collecting and how the data can be used, and in which contexts the data can be further disclosed without their consent. In addition to any and all applicable requirements under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), education leaders should develop policies that identify who can access student data and communicate to families their rights and responsibilities concerning data collection. These policies should include formal adoption processes for online educational services and click-wrap agreements. Click-wrap agreements appear when users are asked to accept the provider’s terms of service before using a website or software application. Click-wrap agreements enter the developer and the user (in this case, the school or district) into a contractual relationship akin to signing a contract. Districts should ensure district employees understand the implications of district policies governing the use of such agreements.

Several federal statutes apply to student privacy in schools. More information on each is below.

Creating a Culture of Student Data Privacy Takes Time

Not long after hiring a new Executive Director of Educational Services, Rocky River School District in Ohio recognized the need to create a system-wide culture focused on protecting student data privacy. Although the school board had recently reconfirmed its Student Privacy Policy, implementation was inconsistent. Collaborative stakeholder conversations identified the need to clearly define and educate staff about the difference between personally identifiable information (PII), confidential information, internal information, and directory information. After consultations with teacher leaders identified the need for increased training opportunities and an easier way for teachers to request digital tools, the district simplified the request process for teachers, developed an easily accessible list of pre-approved digital applications, and created a teacher-focused self-help guide.
The district found that pushback often resulted from a lack of understanding or awareness, so they provided staff with a variety of ongoing training opportunities, including in-depth professional learning sessions, faculty meeting pop-ups, monthly bulletins, explanatory videos, and privacy-protecting tips and tricks recommended by other teachers and staff. The district also built an internal website with student data privacy information and resources and designated teacher-leaders as the initial point persons for staff questions. Utilizing multiple communication channels helped get the word out. In addition, the district attorney attended staff meetings to explain the importance of data governance and tied it to their state-required Teacher Code of Ethics training.
The district also updated its textbook adoption procedures to include vetting for data governance requirements. Finally, the district applied for and earned the CoSN Trusted Learning Environment seal, an accomplishment indicating that they have taken strong, measurable steps to protect student data.

Utah Funds Student Data Privacy Office to Support School Systems

Like many states, Utah has recently updated its student data privacy laws. In 2015, Utah passed HB68, which required the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) to make recommendations for updating existing privacy laws—and, critically, to develop a funding proposal to implement data privacy changes. This work led to the Student Data Protection Act in 2016, which includes requirements for local educational agencies, state educational agencies, and third-party vendors. Part of Utah’s privacy efforts was the decision to create and sustainably fund a Student Data Privacy Office. In addition to a Chief Privacy Officer, the office includes a student data privacy auditor, a student data privacy project manager, and a student data privacy trainer. This combination of funding, legislation, and dedicated experts has created a sustainable student privacy system that provides local educational agency student privacy training, resources, and reporting. One case study about Utah’s student data privacy attributes Utah’s success to methodical collaboration between state and local leaders, ongoing dedicated funding for dedicated staff, and continual improvement. “Mandated training at the state (tied to teacher relicensure) and local levels, ongoing reporting requirements, and the development and distribution of high-quality resources by USBE’s dedicated staff all serve to keep privacy top of mind.”

Federal Privacy Laws and K-12 Education

FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) affords parents and “eligible students” the right to inspect and review, seek to amend, and exercise some control over the disclosure of student education records maintained by educational agencies (e.g., school districts) and institutions (i.e., schools) to which funds have been made available under any program administered by the Secretary of Education. (Under FERPA, an “eligible student” is a student who has reached 18 years of age or is attending a postsecondary school at any age.) Among other things, for instance, FERPA generally requires educational agencies and institutions to obtain prior written consent from parents and eligible students before disclosing PII from education records. However, one exception to FERPA’s general written consent requirement permits an educational agency or institution to disclose, without consent, PII from education records to a third party to whom the educational agency or institution has outsourced institutional services or functions, as long as certain conditions are met. Under this exception, the third party must be determined by the educational agency or institution to constitute a school official who has a legitimate educational interest in the education records under the criteria set forth in its annual notification of FERPA rights; perform an institutional service or function for which the educational agency or institution would otherwise use employees; be under the direct control of the educational agency or institution with respect to the use and maintenance of the education records; and be subject to the FERPA requirements governing the use and redisclosure of PII from education records found in 34 CFR § 99.33. For more guidance on FERPA, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s FERPA resources.

COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) governs the online collection of personal information from individuals under 13 years of age. Before a commercial website or online service directed towards individuals under 13 years of age can collect any personal information from such individuals, the operator of such website or service must obtain “verifiable parental consent”. Verifiable parental consent is also required if an operator has actual knowledge that it is collecting personal information from an individual under 13 years of age. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces COPPA, has said that school officials can, in certain situations, provide consent on behalf of the parents as long as that consent is limited to the educational context—where an operator collects personal information from students for the use and benefit of the school, and no other commercial purpose. For more information on COPPA, please visit the FTC’s COPPA FAQ website.

IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) includes confidentiality requirements to protect the privacy interests of children with disabilities from birth until age 21 who are referred for services under the IDEA. IDEA protects PII in the records of children referred to IDEA. IDEA requires that a parent provide prior written consent before PII is disclosed to a third party and that the parental consent is informed. There are some specific exceptions that may apply to the general rule of parental consent.

CIPA (the Children’s Internet Protection Act) imposes several requirements on schools or libraries that receive E-Rate discounts for internet access. Schools and libraries must certify that they have technologies in place to block or filter internet access to content that is obscene, pornographic, or harmful to minors, and schools must also monitor the online activities of minors. The FCC’s CIPA Guide offers a more in-depth understanding of CIPA requirements.

PPRA (the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment) protects the rights of parents and students in a number of ways, some of which are summarized below. (These rights transfer from a parent to a student when the student turns 18 years old or is an emancipated minor under applicable state law.) PPRA requires that a local educational agency (as defined in PPRA) that receives funds under a program administered by the U.S. Department of Education develop and adopt local policies, in consultation with parents, on specifically enumerated privacy issues. A couple of such required local policies are summarized below. PPRA requires that such a local educational agency develop and adopt a policy, in consultation with parents, that affords parents the right to inspect, upon request, among other things, instructional materials, excluding academic tests or academic assessments, used by the local educational agency as part of the educational curriculum for a student. PPRA also requires that such a local educational agency develop and adopt a policy, in consultation with parents, regarding the collection, disclosure, or use of personal information collected from students for the purpose of marketing or for selling that information (or otherwise providing that information to others for that purpose), including arrangements to protect student privacy that are provided by the agency in the event of such collection, disclosure, or use. PPRA also requires that such a local educational agency directly notify parents of students who are scheduled to participate in activities involving the collection, disclosure, or use of personal information collected from the students for the purpose of marketing or sale (or otherwise providing that information to others for that purpose) and give parents the opportunity to opt the students out of these activities. One important exception to the foregoing PPRA requirement is that neither parental notice and the opportunity to opt-out nor the development and adoption of local policies are required for such local educational agencies to use students’ personal information for the exclusive purpose of developing, evaluating, or providing educational products or services for, or to, students or schools.

HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) sets national standards and requirements for, among other things, the privacy of protected health information (PHI) and the security of electronic PHI. The HIPAA Privacy Rule does not apply to records that are protected by FERPA. For a better understanding of the intersection between HIPAA and FERPA, see the jointly published guidance from the US Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education.

Consult PTAC Recommendations

The U.S. Department of Education established the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) as a one-stop resource to learn about privacy related to student data. PTAC provides information and updated guidance on privacy, confidentiality, and security practices through a variety of means, including training materials and direct assistance. PTAC also provides guidance on FERPA and PPRA. PTAC recently provided additional recommendations on Protecting Student Privacy While Using Online Educational Services and Transparency Best Practices for Schools and Districts.

PTAC Data Breach Scenario is intended to assist schools, districts, and other educational organizations with internal data security training. The Password Data Breach interactive exercise is aimed at district management and provides a simulated response to a district-level data breach that focuses on the processes, procedures, and skills needed to respond.

Of the three digital divides, the United States has made the most progress in closing the digital access divide over the past decade. Millions more students now have access to high-speed internet and devices suitable for learning at school and at home. Educators are faced with digital ecosystems teaming with thousands of digital learning resources. In most spaces, the immediate edtech playing field is leveling. As is ever the case, overcoming these access challenges leads states, districts, and schools to more complex issues. Here, too, progress is being made. New state student data privacy laws have prompted the development of capacity-building resources to support school systems. The importance of supporting student Digital Health, Safety, and Citizenship—in and out of the classroom—is receiving national attention. Accessible and assistive technologies continue to evolve. States and districts have long recognized closing the digital access divide is an essential condition if they hope to improve the design of learning supported by technology to ensure all students are active, analytical learners.

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