Digital Learning Equity Act Aims to Level the Playing Field

Proponents of the bill say it is a great first step at fixing the disparity among low-income students

by / October 1, 2015

Under the Obama administration, the digital divide appears to be getting smaller, thanks to updates to the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate program and ConnectHome — but there remains what educators are calling a "homework gap."

A recently introduced bill called the Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015, however, might help with that.

If passed, the bill would put more digital tools and resources into the hands of low-income students, ensuring that not having money isn't an impediment in the academic world.

The bill targets students ages 5 to 17 who are either living in poverty or receiving federal assistance, and aims to accomplish five goals:

  1. Increase student classroom participation, including homework assignment completion and participation in innovative digital learning models
  2. Improve student access to higher education and workforce opportunities by helping students apply for employment, postsecondary education and financial aid;
  3. Increase ed-tech and digital learning resources for educators to support student learning, ensuring methods and resources used during the school day remain accessible during out-of-school hours
  4. Increase student, educator and parent engagement by facilitating greater communication and connection between school and home
  5. Increase strategies to support students who lack off-campus access to digital learning resources and the Internet, including underserved student populations and students in rural and remote geographic areas

The bill is widely supported in the academic community, with public statements of support given by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the International Society for Technology in Education, the National School Boards Association (NSBA), the American Library Association and the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that most teachers believe the Internet has made a "major impact" on the ability of students to access learning materials, but only 18 percent of students reported sufficient at-home access.

This bill is a great first step at fixing that disparity among low-income students, said Lucy Gettman, deputy associate executive director at the NSBA.

"All children need to be digital proficients in order to be successful at school, successful at life," she said. "Any child that doesn't have access to digital tools is going to be at a disadvantage."

Another part of the bill Gettman said is important is that it allows states, local communities and local school districts to capitalize on what works for them so that it can be scaled up around the nation.

"It's a locally driven, state-driven mechanism to find solutions that can then be translated on a broader scale," she said. "It's just the right balance of local, state and federal intervention in an area that's critical not only for every child's success but for our nation's success."

Gettman speculated that if passed, the bill would provide educational institutions a chance to get feedback on some of the programs that would be created from the legislation and then scale the most successful ones nationally.

Reg Leichty, an outside lobbyist for CoSN, said the nation's 50 million school children are part of a system that is increasingly digital, and so they too must become digital.

"Our educators are not only increasingly using digital tools and media in the classroom, but they're calling on students to access those materials, using technology for homework," he said, "and for those students that don't have access to broadband at home, that's a distinct disadvantage."

This bill is a terrific first step, Leichty said.

"We're simultaneously investing in broadband access and wireless activity inside the school building," he said, "and this is now an appropriate turn of attention to how do we ensure 24/7 access? In an ideal world, there would be, behind the study and the initial pilot investment, some big nationally scaled investment in this. Once we hit on the strategies we know to be effective, we've got to then put some investment behind it and scale it so that we're ensuring every student, regardless of zip code, has the service they need."

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.