The Diamond in the Rough: Panel on Advancing Digital Equity


Chiseling 21st Century Learners in a Broadband-Enhanced World Webinar Details Next Steps to Advance Digital Equity

SIIA hosted another Tech& program on May 23rd. The Diamond in the Rough: Chiseling 21st Century Learners in a Broadband-Enhanced World brought together expert guest speakers on the latest ed tech issues and how the next generation of learners could grow in a more equitable broadband world. Watch the program here.    

“There’s a lot of money in the pipeline for building out broadband in this country. We need to make sure that it’s spent wisely and well. And that means making sure that it’s used to serve unserved and underserved areas,” said Sen. John Thune, (R-SD) and Ranking Member of the subcommittee on communications, media and broadband on the Senate Commerce Committee, kicking off the May 23 SIIA webinar “The Diamond in the Rough: Chiseling 21st Century Learners in a Broadband-Enhanced World.”

“Advancing digital equity is a core focus of SIIA’s work,” Dr. Divya Sridhar, Senior Director, Data Policy said in introductory remarks. “Digital equity requires funding, resources, as well as upskilling and training opportunities for underrepresented communities, where broadband access and related supports are lacking and yet so critical. Roughly one-third of unemployed Americans lack the foundational digital skills required for the estimated 75% of U.S. jobs which require such skills, according to a study by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. So how is the United States working to bridge the digital connectivity and skills gap, which go hand in hand?

This question set the stage for the moderated panel discussion with key policy experts who are advancing efforts on digital equity.

Nicole Ferraro, site editor of Broadband World News and host of “The Divide,” moderated the panel with Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education; Heather Gates, vice president of digital inclusion for Connected Nation and chair of the FCC’s Communications Equity and Diversity Council (CEDC); Rosemary Lahasky, senior director, government affairs, Cengage Group; and Michael Calabrese, director, wireless future program & senior research fellow OTI, New America Foundation.

Ferraro noted “current data shows that an estimated 16 million students in the U.S. lack access to a broadband connection and it’s fair to assume that number is larger given we’re still working with pretty bad outdated federal data when it comes to quantifying the digital divide. Meanwhile, and simultaneously, research is warning us about the impact of digital skills shortages on the workforce and economy. So closing the digital divide is crucial to level the playing field for students, so they can succeed to their fullest potential and for the US to remain globally competitive.”

The recently passed bipartisan infrastructure law, Ferraro pointed out, reserves $65 billion to solve broadband deployment access and equity problems. It also brings digital equity into focus, by requiring the FCC to write rules that would end “digital discrimination, also known as digital redlining.”

Sharing his perspective on the state of the digital divide for students, Song stated “from an education perspective, we know that students who lack access to the Internet from home exhibit lower digital skills attainment, homework completion rates, GPA and standardized test scores and a number of other factors that last into post-secondary and beyond. We also know from recent data that this divide disproportionately impacts certain student communities, the most likely are students of color and from lower income backgrounds, as well as students from rural districts.

“Because of the leadership of our educators and some education leaders, we’ve seen some progress being made on this issue throughout the last two years through efforts like device and hotspot distribution, assistance to families and signing up for the affordable conductivity program, school-based technical support, help desks and digital literacy trainings… [But] we’re hearing from school and district leaders that it’s not enough to make just broadband available and affordable, although those are critical steps. We also have to make sure that we’re solving the human barriers that often inhibit adoption by our end users.”

The four key barriers are: awareness and understanding of available programs and resources; signing up for available programs and resources; trust between communities and services; and building digital readiness and literacy.

Gate, vice president of digital inclusion for Connected Nation, a national non-profit that expands access to and use of broadband Internet and the related technologies, opined “In order to tackle the digital divide, you have to look at not only access to infrastructure, but you have to look at [Internet] subscriptions affordability,” she said. “Items related to basic skills digital readiness, not only for the student but family members — issues related to the actual Internet-enabled devices that kids use at home… For example, if a household has four kids and one parent working from home do they have the connectivity to serve that household?

“The most meaningful use is how they’re using applications and tools to achieve, whether it is education for telehealth or anything. And then, finally, the digital divide is impacted by emerging technology, so we have to be willing to evolve in our definition of digital divide, as time goes on. And so, in terms of students, the digital divide affects them based on where they are in their communities and what the challenges are for that.”

In the mid-2000s, Cengage transformed to [primarily] digital content. “We just did a survey of students across the country and 70 percent want to have options to learn online,” said Lahasky. We primarily have been providing core software and content in general education, but we’ve been increasingly providing more online courseware when it comes to career and technical education and vocational programs. Those are things that now increasingly are being able to be conducted in part, if not totally, online.”

Calabrese, who is also a member of the Airwaves for Equity Coalition, provided insights on advocacy efforts for Congress to set aside revenue to provide sustainable funding for a digital equity foundation. “The airways for equity proposal is to dedicate a substantial share of future net proceeds from the auction of the public airwaves licenses to invest sustainably in digital literacy and adoption.”

“Closing the digital divide is going to involve three A’s: access, which is the broadband infrastructure —that’s where more than $45 billion is going to build physical networks; affordability and that’s the $14 billion in the affordable connectivity program; and then adoption, inclusion efforts which complement the other two, and there’s very little money available for that,” Calabrese said.

“But as President Biden noted a couple weeks ago in announcing this low-cost initiative with Internet providers, only one in four eligible households has enrolled in the affordable connectivity program, so we need efforts to enroll them, to find them and at least refurbished devices to give them the digital skills training [they need]… If we can endow a digital equity foundation that makes sustainable investments, there can be initiatives to close the homework gap more permanently because the emergency connectivity fund is about to run out.”

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