"Digital Equity" Defined - and Why it Matters
In the March 2023 issue of Journal, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education newsletter, Doug Casey from DAS' Commission for Educational Technology, published Digital Equity Defines – and Why it Matters, an informative article outlining Connecticut's digital equity priorities and how to get involved. You can now read Doug's article on DAS' blog.
“Digital Equity” Defined – and Why It Matters
When schools closed in the spring of 2020 to contain the pandemic, learning went online. Most of us lived through this overnight shift, doing what we could to provide the devices, connections, software, and — most importantly — teacher and student support to make the transition as smooth as possible. “Smooth” it was not, but the State, its philanthropic partners, and local districts did invest heavily in technology to help ensure all students had an equal opportunity to keep learning. For example, Governor Lamont’s “Everybody Learns” initiative provided 40,000 home internet connections, 13,000 mobile hotspots, and 80,000 computers. And the use of software for learning increased by 50 percent, according to some measures.
Devices, fast Internet connections, and software constitute important components of what we call “digital equity.” State statute (PA 21-159) defines it as “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for participation in society, democracy and the economy of the state.” That “participation” includes learning, and not just having a computer, a connection, and software but also the skills needed for higher education and careers. For example, one recent study suggests that, even for entry-level jobs, 95 percent of positions require proficiency in digital skills.
Taking a wider view beyond the confines of our schools, access to the Internet, devices, and the skills and support to use them remain essential for any member of our communities to engage in today’s digital society. Residents without these tools and know-how — as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic — cannot take advantage of the countless work, training, education, healthcare, civic, and social benefits that being online provides. For those reasons, Connecticut is engaging in a bold, year-long planning process to identify and address the barriers to technology adoption in our state.
A Plan for Connecticut
With funding from the 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Governor Lamont tapped the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology to lead the development of a data- and community-driven plan that makes it easy and affordable to get online and engage in the digital world. This work is underway, with efforts to identify the barriers to technology access as well as the resources in place that our state can scale and replicate to close the digital divide. The Commission expects to complete and submit the State Digital Equity Plan this fall to the U.S. Department of Commerce. If approved, Connecticut will receive additional funds to connect, train, and provide technical support to our residents.
The development of broadband maps called for and funded through Governor Lamont’s 2021 legislation (see www.CT.gov/BroadbandMaps) helps define the digital divide in Connecticut. In short, in almost every location, residents can get online, but only 86 percent of households have a home Internet subscription. Of those who do, nearly 10 percent have slow, antiquated service that makes it hard to learn, work, or do much else online. Connecticut has more of a technology adoption issue than one of availability.
With this as background to inform our work, the Commission will work over the next year to identify the barriers to technology adoption by engaging residents as well as state and local leaders. The planning process also includes asset mapping to identify those programs and policies that lift technology adoption and equip residents — including students, teachers, and administrators — with the skills to use it effectively. While the state Digital Equity Plan addresses the needs of all residents, the federal program (www.internetforall.gov/program/digital-equity-act-programs) calls on states to place special attention to the needs of these groups:
- Those living in households at or below 150 percent of the poverty level
- Aging individuals
- People incarcerated in state correctional institutions
- Individuals with disabilities
- Residents with a language barrier, including English learners and those with low literacy levels
- Members of a racial or ethnic minority group
- Those who primarily reside in a rural area
The Digital Equity Plan will also address ways that digital access influences and depends on state plans for economic and workforce development, education, health, civic engagement, and the delivery of essential services.
While Connecticut will not receive capacity funding to expand digital equity efforts, the Commission encourages local school boards to consider these next steps:
- Internet Subsidy: The Affordable Connectivity Program, separate and complementary to the Digital Equity Program, provides eligible households with up to $30 off monthly Internet bills. All major carriers in Connecticut participate in the program, which can effectively make home access free for tens of thousands of families. For family outreach materials in multiple languages, visit AffordableConnectivity.gov and choose “Community Resources.”
- Share Resources: Use the form at www.CT.gov/DigitalEquity to share details of digital equity efforts underway through your school or community. Examples include device loan programs or digital literacy programs at your library, public wireless, and hotspots that students can take home. Your submissions will become part of the Commission’s statewide “asset map” of digital equity programs that may be eligible for funding to scale up or replicate in 2024.
- Identify Barriers: We know that just because Internet service is available throughout the state, many families still do not subscribe. And even those with high-speed connections lack the skills and technical support to make safe, effective use of technology. For those reasons, we welcome feedback on the barriers to technology use — including language, trust, and other factors — that will help us frame the Digital Equity Plan. Contact Doug Casey at firstname.lastname@example.org to access the Commission’s digital equity survey, designed to collect your community’s insights around technology barriers so that we can address them head-on.
Connecticut has a solid technology infrastructure to support learning, work, healthcare, and civic life, anytime and anywhere. We look forward to hearing from you on how we can develop a digital equity plan that leverages this foundation to ensure all residents — especially our students — have an equal opportunity to benefit from the digital world of today and tomorrow.