Committing to Digital Equity in an Inclusive Recovery
While Erika Poethig is on leave, Alena Stern, senior data scientist, shares her thoughts on the role of digital literacy in an inclusive recovery.
In the past nine months, we have leapfrogged years in a digital economy that was already quickly changing our patterns of socializing, shopping, learning, and working. Small businesses, school systems, and workplaces across the country had to quickly adapt and find new ways to take their processes and products online to survive.
As states and communities began issuing stay-at-home orders, it became clear that the ability to access new necessities like virtual schooling and workspaces and contactless grocery delivery would be heavily skewed toward places with a reliable digital grid and homes with access to high-speed devices and Wi-Fi. Half of Americans, some 163 million people, don’t have access to high-speed internet, according to a Microsoft study, and that shortage is more likely to be concentrated in rural or low-income communities.
Disparities in digital access are also more likely to affect Black and Latinx communities. For example, underfunded schools in communities of color are less likely to have the latest technology and professional development support for educators to provide digital literacy training. At home, the digital divide creates a “homework gap” that widens educational inequities. When these students enter the job market, disparities in technology access and digital skills create barriers to identifying, applying to, and securing jobs.
The pandemic has illuminated why an equitable digital infrastructure—with all communities having access to affordable broadband and devices—is essential. But the pandemic also underscored that access alone is insufficient to bridge the digital divide; adequate supports for digital literacy alongside investments in equitable digital infrastructure will be crucial to meeting daily demands and harnessing opportunities for inclusive recovery and growth in the future.
How can local response efforts inform digital equity in an inclusive recovery?
When schools abruptly closed last spring, school districts and internet providers nationwide were forced to offer makeshift solutions, sending printed learning packets to students in some cases and Chromebooks or iPads in others, all with a goal of keeping students engaged in as authentic a learning experience as possible. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) spent more than $100 million on devices for online learning last spring. It became clear though, that in digital access—much like economic access—inclusion is key: the school district made headlines in March for the nearly 50,000 students missing from digital learning. Since then, LAUSD leaders have made strides in providing supports for students most affected by the health and economic crises, including those experiencing homelessness.
The LAUSD’s early experience shoring up digital supports is not unique. Other city leaders across the country continue to learn, improve, and innovate as they work to ensure all residents can access online services needed for daily life. Last spring, my Urban Institute colleagues and I surveyed (PDF) chief technology and innovation officers in cities across the US, and 9 of 10 respondents reported that expanding digital literacy training—moving beyond providing physical access toward creating opportunities for people to learn about and take advantage of the potential such devices—had become a key priority in their pandemic responses. Further, 11 of 12 respondents noted they were expanding access to connected devices.
Meka Egwuekwe, executive director of CodeCrew—a Memphis-based nonprofit working to ensure students from underrepresented communities have multiple pathways to the region’s growing tech sector—spoke with us about the importance of investing in infrastructure and digital literacy supports.
“COVID-19 accelerated our understanding of how important digital equity is,” he noted. “Because not every home was connected to decent broadband, education stopped for thousands—tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of kids—and that’s a huge negative impact on our market. In some Memphis zip codes, 80 percent of homes have no broadband access. So, any modern education [delivery system must address] basic access and foundational digital literacy along with computational thinking.”
Many city leaders also recognize the importance of engaging residents as experts in identifying obstacles and removing opportunity costs to accessing technology. When Portland launched a digital divide work group in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, city leaders tapped their equity consulting advisors —community members financially compensated for their lived expertise—to help reshape outreach language and facilitate active participation from marginalized communities.
Doubling down on digital equity for a better future
As we consider what’s needed for a truly inclusive recovery after the pandemic, I am encouraged by how much city leaders are prioritizing digital equity needs in pandemic response efforts. Across our work with schools, local governments, and community-based organizations, we hear again and again how the pandemic has prompted new or accelerated applications of technology that have the potential to expand access to opportunities and advance equity. This includes the move to online city council meetings that dramatically increases attendance, the rapid expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Online Purchasing Pilot to provide equitable access to online grocery shopping, and the increased availability of online education that allows working students to progress toward a certificate or degree without sacrificing time from work to commute to school.
Though ensuring all people can access high-quality and affordable internet and connected devices is a critical foundation for equity, this alone isn’t enough to guarantee everyone can take advantage of the opportunities technology provides—careers, flexibility, access, information. A strong commitment to digital equity that prioritizes digital literacy alongside digital access means people have the agency and ability to benefit and contribute to a growing digital economy.