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Students from historically marginalized backgrounds are more likely than their advantaged peers to be treated as passive users of technology. While they are completing digital worksheets, their peers in better-resourced schools are coding, collaborating, and designing and building tech tools. 

The newly released National Education Technology Plan from the U.S. Department of Education aims to highlight that disparity and many other inequities in the use and design of ed tech, as well as access to it. The report also offers ways that those digital divides can be mitigated. 

“We want to create a sense of urgency to continue to close those gaps,” said Roberto Rodriguez, assistant secretary in the Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development.

The update of the policy document by the DOE’s Office of Education Technology is the first since 2016 (parts of it were revised in 2017). It draws on listening sessions with more than a thousand educators, students, parents, state and district leaders and advocacy organizations, according to Erin Mote, CEO of education policy nonprofit InnovateEDU, one of several education organizations that collaborated with the government on the plan.

The report notes that teachers from well-resourced schools typically have more time and training to design lessons that involve creative, non-formulaic uses of ed tech. 

And divides in access to technologies remain a big problem, with students at wealthier schools and from more affluent families tending to have better internet connectivity and more reliable access to devices and digital learning materials, the report says.     

The report’s guidance for closing the divides includes encouraging districts to incorporate practices of “universal design for learning,” an approach based on developing tools that serve all learners regardless of their learning preferences, abilities and backgrounds. It stresses that educators be flexible in terms of how they present content and engage students, and it also includes support for students with disabilities and those who are learning English. 

As an example, the report highlights the experience of Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Indiana, which has embraced universal design for learning in a variety of ways. Teachers there give students many options for how to use different technologies. And when exploring new ed tech tools to adopt, the district solicits feedback from teachers, parents and students, the report says. 

The report also emphasizes that students need to be given chances to actively, creatively use ed tech. The report discusses how the Pendergast Elementary School District, in Glendale, Arizona, adopted FUSE, a science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics platform created by Northwestern University. Students using FUSE — a student-chosen name that is not an acronym — select the learning activities they want to try, including 3D printing, animation and robotics. 

In addition, the report covers AI and data privacy. The examples it cites include a Montana online school offering a course in artificial intelligence, and the Dedham school district, in Massachusetts, which has made a data privacy and cybersecurity course part of quarterly professional development for educators, among other changes. 

Keith Kruger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, wrote in an email that while he’s pleased the plan focuses on closing digital divides, he would like to see more ambitious proposals, including the creation of district-level ed tech director positions to help “ensure the promise of ed tech reaches all students.”

He said school districts shouldn’t simply hand over the federal plan to a technology director and have them be solely responsible for implementing it. District leaders – including those overseeing academics, special education, finance as well as technology – need to come together to “build systems that empower every learner,” he wrote.

This story about the National Education Technology Plan was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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