Today, a school without a computer is “almost comparable to a classroom without a book,” says Nicol Turner Lee, a fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. To make the most of computers and a growing array of digital technologies, “schools have to figure out ways to enhance their technology budgets, not just for administrators, but for teachers, students, and even parents, to become much savvier on these tools,” says Turner Lee, author of the forthcoming book, Digitally Invisible: How the Internet Is Creating the New Underclass. A presenter at the 2019 NSBA Annual Conference in Philadelphia, Turner Lee discussed the necessity of equitable access to technology in schools.

Describe the current digital equity landscape.

New technology is definitely leveling the playing field when it comes to educational institutions and communities, and part of the reason why is because—as the technology has become much faster, smarter— and much more ubiquitous, it’s important for students to learn via the tools that are being heavily used and adopted in society while also learning how they too can engage in the innovation economy.

What have you learned about rural and urban communities with limited digital access?

That we should want every institution in this country to engage people around the benefits of broadband access. Schools are in the best position to do that because they know children, know their learning styles. Today, a school without access, particularly in low-income and rural communities, takes already disadvantaged kids and perpetuates the trajectory that may eventually lead to other social mobility problems and consequences.

What are barriers to digital equity?

The widespread availability of technology and the rapid pace in which it enters the market puts pressure on schools to assess the relevance of that content to educational goals. Just because educational technology may be introduced to the marketplace doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the best solution for teaching students. So, the rapid adoption of technology must be vetted among educational institutions for curricula alignment. Also, we see some rub between the adoption of new technologies and the learning curve for teachers. Professional development and technology training are both critical to the use of technology within the classroom.

Is it worse to move too fast or too slow?

We often tread cautiously simply because the pace of new technology often outweighs our ability to understand exactly how it benefits populations and communities. We must keep putting more burden on our schools to be responsible for their deployment of technology, but that extra responsibility should not preclude the introduction of it because, when that happens, there are other ramifications. There’s nothing like a low-income kid from the wrong side of the geo-divide starting the race without an important skill. And that new skill is digital access. I hear educators say we’re going to use it, but we must go slow. Then I hear teachers and educators rush into it, and they are transforming the way their kids are learning. You must strike a balance. Our educational institutions are the lifeline of our communities. They always have been. And when they are outdated, we disadvantage populations so that they are unable to learn, earn, and live in the digital economy.

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