In the spring of 2022, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology (OET) launched its Digital Equity Education Roundtables (DEER) initiative, which involved a series of national conversations with families and community organizations to understand the barriers that students face in accessing technology. The DEER initiative emerged after the pandemic helped highlight the challenges faced by students trapped in the digital divide. These challenges were most obvious during periods of remote instruction, but now it is clear that even with in-person instruction, a lack of access to technology can have severe impacts as educators continue to shift towards tech-supported lesson delivery. OET’s goal for the DEER initiative was to ensure that forthcoming efforts to address the digital divide through opportunities like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) are tailored to meet the unique needs of students and educators. 

The result of the DEER Initiative was a report published in September of 2022 offering recommendations to state and local officials about how to maximize the impact of the upcoming Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) and Digital Equity Act (DEA) programs. OET’s report emphasizes three fundamental components of digital equity: availability, affordability, and adoption. With the availability and affordability components already receiving significant attention in the form of, respectively, the upcoming BEAD program and the ongoing Affordability Connectivity Program (ACP), OET goes to particular lengths to emphasize the importance of strategies to address the third component: adoption. Improving broadband adoption means addressing the human-level barriers that prevent people from getting online, including knowledge about how to sign up for internet service, knowledge about how to use a device, access to technical support, and fears over the security risks of being online.

In its roundtable conversations with community members, OET gathered information about the primary obstacles to overcoming these adoption barriers. These included the exclusion of impacted communities when designing interventions, distrust of government programs and internet providers among marginalized communities, the lack of intentional collaboration among stakeholder groups, reliance on inaccurate data to drive funding decisions, the failure to design inclusive communications strategies, and a lack of community access to resources for digital skills training and technical support. In order to address these concerns, OET recommends co-creating adoption efforts with community members, developing and promoting inclusive digital resources, leveraging trusted community partners for outreach and training, and building in regular cycles for community feedback and program reevaluation. 

In the coming year, OET hopes to build on its progress by amplifying the recommendation in its report to uplift local digital equity champions, supporting states as they begin work to develop their digital equity strategies, and identifying states with a successful model of cross-sector collaboration between education and broadband leaders. 

Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology, presented to the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion on February 3rd, 2023.

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