Mar 27 2024

What Does the National Educational Technology Plan Say About the Digital Divides?

New guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology reframes the challenges facing K–12 schools.

Over the past few years, schools and policymakers were focused on one digital divide in K–12 education: unequal access to technology.

However, the Office of Educational Technology, a team within the U.S. Department of Education, recently updated its National Educational Technology Plan, and this year’s NETP goes deeper. It defines not one but three digital divides.

The new approach comes out of an earlier call by that office for educators to ensure “more equitable access to technology-enabled learning experiences.” To align to this new vision, K–12 leaders must first understand the digital use, digital design and digital access divides.

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What Is the Digital Use Divide?

The digital use divide is the “inequitable implementation of instructional tasks supported by technology,” according to the NETP. This addresses the inconsistent ways that students are taught to use technology. Some are required to use it actively — “to analyze, build, produce, and create” — while other assignments call for a more passive relationship with technology, the NETP notes.

To close the gap, schools need to offer options. Using a variety of digital tools gives educators the flexibility to present information in more than one way. “Examples can include videos, interactive simulations, infographics, and audio recordings,” according to the NETP. “These tools allow students to access content in formats that suit their preferences.”

Looking beyond access, teaching with a host of digital tools allows students to demonstrate their learning and understanding of a concept in different ways.

DIVE DEEPER: Technology supports personalized learning in K–12 classrooms.

Technologies that enable students to create audio or video presentations such as podcasts, as well as e-books and digital drawing tools, can showcase students’ individual strengths. Audiovisual tools, including Logitech’s BCC950 ConferenceCam and Microsoft’s Surface Hub, and large-format flat panels, such as Promethean ActivePanel displays, expand the range of digital alternatives.

What Is the Digital Design Divide?

As defined by the NETP, the digital design divide is the inequitable access to professional learning for educators to design learning experiences for all students.

Schools need to give educators the time to practice and build these design skills. Teachers are already working long hours outside the classroom, and many report experiencing burnout. The National Education Association estimates that teachers work 53 hours a week, seven hours more than the average working adult. A Merrimack College survey found that 29 percent of teachers want more planning time.

The design divide considers both the systems that provide educators with enough time and support to build their capacity with digital tools and the systems that do not. “In systems where the average teacher can access more than 2,000 digital tools in a given moment,” the NETP states, closing the design divide “moves teachers beyond the formulaic use of digital tools and allows them to actively design learning experiences for all students within a complex ecosystem of resources.”

Other data supports the presence of this digital design gap. The International Society for Technology in Education’s 2023 “Transforming Teacher Education” study found that every faculty member embraced and modeled instructional technology in only 9 percent of educator preparation programs surveyed.


The percentage of educator preparation programs where every faculty member embraced and modeled instructional technology

Source: International Society for Technology in Education, “Transforming Teacher Education,” Sept. 12, 2023

To help close the design divide, schools should support educators with professional development that fits their schedules, learning styles and needs. Partners such as CDW can use a vendor-agnostic approach with trusted professional development providers whose offerings align with the NETP.

What Is the Digital Access Divide?

The digital access divide is a gap that stems from “inequitable access to connectivity, devices, and digital content,” according to the NETP. The digital access divide also applies to accessibility and access to instruction in digital health, safety and citizenship skills.

KEEP READING: Schools use tech as a guardrail for good digital citizenship.

Some aspects of this divide are evident largely at home. An estimated 15 million to 16 million K–12 learners “do not have sufficient access to reliable, high-speed broadband and technology tools for learning at home,” according to researchers at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Still, findings in the NETP suggest that schools have a key role to play in removing that inequity, particularly when it comes to digital learning devices.

“The availability and quality of digital learning devices available to students varies from district to district and even school to school,” the NETP notes. “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.”

Schools can ensure equitable access through investments in student devices. They can also build up their onsite network infrastructure so students can take full advantage of the devices while in school. Tools from ArubaCisco and Juniper Networks, among others, can help K–12 IT leaders adequately plan for and build out capacity.

Click the banner for resources to update your K-12 network infrastructure.


How Can Schools Close the Digital Divides?

The NETP makes the case that schools need to spend time, effort and resources to close these three digital divides. Thoughtful, planned investments in ed tech and professional development bring technology into classrooms in equitable and meaningful ways.

“Technology can be a powerful tool to help transform learning,” the plan states. “It has the potential to empower students to expand their learning beyond the confines of the traditional classroom, support self-directed learning, help educators tailor learning experiences to individual student needs, and support students with disabilities.”

By addressing inequity through the lens of the National Educational Technology Plan’s three newly defined digital divides, states, districts and schools can create systems that enable all students, regardless of their background, to benefit from ed tech’s opportunities.

UP NEXT: Move from equal to equitable classrooms using data and technology.

Oleksandra Polishchuk/Getty Images

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