Diane W. Doersch, Director of Technology, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools, Digital Promise, discussing digital equity with EdTech magazine.

Jul 07 2022

Q&A: Former District CTO Pushes for Digital Equity in Leadership and Learning

Growing up on a farm gave Diane W. Doersch an up-close-and-personal view of the digital divide. After officially retiring as a district CTO, she continues to advocate for digital equity.

As someone who was born in Thailand, grew up on a Wisconsin farm and then rose through the ranks to become CTO/CIO of the Green Bay Area Public School District when few others looked like her, Diane W. Doersch knows a thing or two about pushing past digital inequity.

Doersch now serves as technology director for the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative at the global nonprofit Digital Promise and was named board chair-elect for the Consortium for School Networking.

Doersch spoke with EdTech about how her work with these organizations has helped expand her thinking about digital equity.

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EDTECH: What is your personal experience with digital equity, and how did that translate into a career in education?

DOERSCH: As a kid growing up on a rural farm in Wisconsin, I often felt “left behind” in the world because I didn’t have the resources that kids in urban areas seemed to have. That was many years ago, but I’m realizing that some kids may still be growing up feeling left behind, but in a different way, a digital way.

I wanted to do something to change that. As a former classroom teacher and technology leader in public schools, I’m personally committed to providing equity for all citizens.

EDTECH: For those who are still unclear about what digital equity means, is there a particular definition that you like?

DOERSCH: D’Andre Weaver, Digital Promise’s first chief digital equity officer, has a definition that I love. He defines digital equity as recognizing and dismantling inequitable systems, cultures, policies, mindsets and behaviors that impede communities from civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning and access to essential services.

WATCH: This video to learn why digital equity is not a one-person job.

EDTECH: What does digital equity look like in practice for you?

DOERSCH: To me, it looks like the work we do through the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative, which equips students and teachers at select Title I middle and high schools across the U.S. with devices, including tablets, laptops or hotspots (for schools with existing one-to-one device programs), and up to four years of a data plan for each student.

The initiative also provides schools with dedicated technology coaches who teach educators how to effectively integrate technology into the curriculum. Districts and schools also receive technical support from our team.

EDTECH: What inspired you to become involved with Digital Promise after retiring from public schools?

DOERSCH: As a person who has lived in the ed tech world for many years, it was difficult for me to think about coming to the end of my road when I hit retirement age because I have plenty of tread left on my tires.

I was fortunate enough to find Digital Promise and the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative that would allow me to continue my mission to guide school districts toward digital equity.

Internet access is a civil right, and necessary for all our citizens to grow and thrive.”

Diane W. Doersch Director of Technology, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools, Digital Promise

EDTECH: Tell us how your background in spearheading digital transformation efforts at Green Bay Area Public School District informs your work now?

DOERSCH: I help school districts and IT leaders with the support and technical expertise they need to be part of the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative. My previous work provided me with school- and district-based experience in executing large-scale hardware deployments, leading organizational change management and successfully communicating at multiple levels.

These skills carried over to Digital Promise, where I work to help schools and districts build processes for tasks like device repair, app vetting or planning for sustainability.

EDTECH: What have you witnessed in terms of digital equity in action for students?

DOERSCH: I’m honored to have active roles in organizations that are working to get resources to learners so they can participate fully and excel in our increasingly digital world.

I have witnessed firsthand how one of the components of the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program — the student technology teams — allow a diverse group of students to collectively work together to help their peers succeed with technology, whether it be repairing devices, creating instructional videos, or assisting teachers in selecting the right apps for students.

DISCOVER: How these former educators and administrators became IT leaders.

EDTECH: How can public schools make room for more diverse voices in educational technology leadership?

DOERSCH: According to a 2022 CoSN survey, 64 percent of K—12 IT leaders are men, 85 percent are white, and very few CTOs or directors are people of color. As hiring managers, we can reflect equity in our own technology departments by hiring candidates from diverse backgrounds. When students see technical people who look like them, they can begin to imagine themselves in those roles too.

At CoSN, we believe it is key to move beyond mentorship to sponsorship by not only providing leadership advice but also putting your own professional reputation on the line to vouch for up-and-coming leaders of color and introducing young leaders to your professional circles.

EDTECH: Aside from providing students with devices and internet access, what do you believe is the next step in narrowing the digital divide?

DOERSCH: The digital divide is a complex and global issue that requires the attention and efforts of many actors across multiple sectors, including education and ed tech. However, I believe policy is the place to begin.

Internet access is a civil right, and necessary for all our citizens to grow and thrive. The digital divide will close only when we combine policy and actions to include everyone.

REVIEW: This roundtable where experts share their thoughts on the challenges facing digital equity.

EDTECH: Tell us more about how the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program has helped to narrow the digital divide?

DOERSCH: The Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program has reached more than 500 schools over the past eight years. Participating schools have been able to provide access to students who come from under-resourced areas.

As a result of their participation in the program, many districts have independently grown and cultivated their own one-to-one programs. Scaling the initiative across the school district is a goal we have at Digital Promise to help address digital inequities and empower schools to create transformational change.

Diane Doersch believes digital equity can empower both students and educators. Video by Michael Wolcott

EDTECH: What advice do you have for school IT leaders overwhelmed by too few resources to equally support all students across their district?

DOERSCH: Even though we’re talking about technology, the real art of IT leadership is building relationships with people. That means getting to know and understand the diverse population of students we serve, the instructors we support, the community in which we live and the leadership within the schools and district.

A key element we implemented to ensure digital equity in our schools is to set a baseline of hardware and technical services that all schools in the district would receive. That way, if there were economic differences between what schools could afford with their external funds, each child in the district would be guaranteed the baseline of technology.

Teachers can then proceed with transformational classroom practices with technology because they know every student has access to the technology and to the internet.

DIVE DEEPER: How one Ohio school district innovated on a small budget and with limited staff.

EDTECH: Why is it important that we all understand that the onus of solving the digital equity problem doesn’t just rest on schools?

DOERSCH: Digital equity is a civil rights issue. It takes a village to move this mountain. Through our Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative, we have seen wonderful pockets of innovation and best practices where digital equity has been achieved, but those examples are the exception, not the norm.

I am hopeful that the work we are doing at Digital Promise and CoSN will generate stories of digital impact that will cause a groundswell of support and serve as a bright light in the sometimes gloomy forecast of our whole global digital ecosystem.

Photography by Shane Van Boxtel

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