New Federal Report Underscores Tech Sector’s Role in Combating Disparities

Staff Writer
Digital native students e-learning over computers at school.

Inequities in not just basic access to technology, but how it’s used in classrooms undermine benefits that digital tools could bring to schools, a new federal report concludes. 

The National Educational Technology Plan, an annual document produced by the U.S. Department of Education, looks this year at digital divides, not just in basic access to technology, but also in its use and design, and it has implications for the kinds of tech products the universe of ed-tech companies develops and delivers for schools. 

In drafting the 113-page plan, the authors and their partner organizations conducted more than 1,000 interviews, including those with representatives from the ed-tech industry, said Erin Mote, executive director and co-founder of InnovateEDU, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce inequities in education through technology and innovative practices. Her organization served as one of the partners in the plan’s publication.

Professional development needs to go well beyond basic functionality with tech, to helping teachers use it in more creative and engaging ways, the report says.

The plan underscores the “foundational things that industry leaders need to make sure they’re addressing in order for their products to be functional within these systems,” Mote said. “And that includes cybersecurity, interoperability, privacy, and accessibility.” 

These three distinct inequities in how schools use and provide access to technology are identified in the report as follows: 

The digital use divide: the disparity between those students who are asked to use technology for creation, exploration, and critical analysis, and those who are not. 

The digital design divide: the difference in systems that provide educators the time and support they need to build their capacities to design learning experiences with digital tools, and those that do not. 

The digital access divide: the gap between 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.

“Schools have found themselves with more connectivity, devices, and digital resources than at any other moment in history,” the report says. This context presents an opportunity now for vendors to “leverage this momentum” in closing gaps in access.

‘Next Level’ Tech Use 

Inequities in digital design identified in the report include unequal access to training and support for educators in the implementation of ed-tech tools in classrooms. 

“In systems where the average teacher can access more than 2,000 digital tools in a given moment, training on a tool’s basic functionality is insufficient,” the report says. 

The authors of the national tech plan together heard overwhelmingly from school and district officials that they need more professional development to be able to use technology tools effectively in their classrooms and in school settings, Mote said. 

Educators want to use technology to supplement the instructional core, Mote said, but basic challenges get in the way, from everything such as barriers in logging in to tech tools and understanding how to deeply integrate tech into teaching and learning. 

[Some students are] guided towards more limited engagements that frame them as passive technology users.U.S. Department of Education's National Educational Technology Plan

Ed-tech companies that want to close the gap need to ask themselves a series of questions, Mote said. Do they have professional training resources readily available on their websites or product pages? Do they have easy-to-use, how-to guides for common challenges that classroom educators will encounter?  

Many classroom teachers struggle to implement technology that administrators purchase, which leads to frustration on the part of educators, district leaders, and education companies fielding complaints about their products. Mote says education companies should be conducting extensive user testing to understand the most common problems educators face in trying to make ed-tech tools that seem great in theory work with students.  

Companies should experiment with a variety of forums to help teachers, from webinars to training that can be consumed synchronously and asynchronously, she said. 

The authors of the report heard from teachers that “they often learn from other educators in their network,” Mote said. “So think about how to cultivate a group of educators to be ambassadors to help folks understand what’s the basic use of the product, versus next-level use.” 

Short on Creativity 

The technology plan also looks at another weakness in many schools: That some students are not being asked to use technology in richer ways, for creation, exploration, and critical analysis. 

Vendors can help by focusing on how they’re allowing users to tailor their experience and to interact with the technology more, Mote said. The report, however, notes vast disparities in students’ experiences, depending on the school district, school, or classroom. 

“Some students experience a school year full of critical media analysis, video and podcast creation, real-world data collection, connections with remote content area experts, and authentic opportunities to share their learning with global audiences,” according to the report. 

“Other students—often students from historically marginalized backgrounds—have very different experiences with technology. They are guided towards more limited engagements that frame them as passive technology users.” 

The Department of Education’s plan also includes seven appendices that provide examples of how school districts from across the country are using tech in engaging ways. Education companies can find examples of best practices in how they can partner with schools to create richer, more equitable experiences, Mote said. 

Accessibly Falling Short 

The tech plan also emphasizes the need to address the digital access divide, which it defines as the gap between students and educators who have equitable, sustainable access to connectivity, devices, and digital content, and those who do not. The inequities extend to digital health, safety, and citizenship. 

“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,” according to the report. Those resources are often taken for granted by their historically better-resourced peers.” 

Those disparities could be rooted in a lack of money provided in district budgets, or districts not creating tech environments that fully support tech integration across different products. Companies need to help open doors to more students having broader experiences. 

That could involve them taking steps such as including a plugin that allows the technology to be used so that text can be read aloud to users who are visually impaired, or having options to adjust screen resolution, or other sorts of tools for those who have learning differences. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic led districts to rapidly shift into 1-to-1 environments and to increase conversation about affordable connectivity programs and investments in broadband infrastructure, there is still work to be done, Mote said. 

The experiences of school districts during the pandemic “opened folks’ eyes to the possibilities of ed tech,” Mote said. But “there’s some distance to go, in terms of getting us to a place where ed tech is fully integrated into the teaching and learning experience in an equitable way.” 

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