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7 reasons digital equity is a social justice issue

The need for 24/7 device and internet access has deep social implications

access-equityDigital access and digital equity continue to present a challenge to educators. Meeting that challenge is more important than ever, because, as many stakeholders say, digital equity is about more than access to devices and strong internet connections–it’s about social justice and fair opportunity.

Mobile learning equity has been a big focus for educators for many years, but discussions usually center on access to devices and internet.

While access to those things remains challenging, new conversations are emerging as districts become more capable of providing take-home devices and robust internet access during school, said Marie Bjerede, the Consortium for School Networking’s Project Director for the Leadership for Mobile Learning initiative. Bjerede moderated a special event edWeb webinar on digital access and equity.

(Next page: Seven reasons why digital access is a social justice issue)

Why is digital equity a social justice issue?

1. Economic inequities and anytime, anywhere access beyond school–or lack of such access–contribute to differences in the kind of learning students experience when they have their own devices and can access resources and tools whenever they please.

There’s a growing divide between students who have access to mobile devices at school and the students who live with them 24/7, Bjerede said.

Equity concerns not just access to technology tools and the internet, but access to information, said Michelle Bourgeois, project manager for the Learning Technology Plan in the St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) in Colorado.

The next step is ensuring students have the “opportunity to use that access for high-impact learning at home and at school,” she said. “[We want to] give kids innovative ways to extend their learning beyond home.”

2. High school students who have at-home internet access have higher graduation rates independent of family income or family makeup, Bourgeois said. Sixty percent of low-income home in Colorado do not have a computer, and only 22 percent have broadband access at home.

SVVSD is attempting to address its access and equity barriers through a one-to-one iPad initiative in grades 6-12 and classroom iPads in PreK-grade 5. The district partnered with the city to increase its bandwidth, and currently runs 10 gigabits of bandwidth from its central office out to schools. “Every learning space in every building in the district has wireless,” Bourgeois said.

3. Digital equity gives families the advantage of learning together, Bourgeois said.

“It’s really not just about sending a device home and hoping the best happens; it’s about giving our families a chance to engage in learning together,” Bourgeois said. “The iPad is not just your student’s device; it really is a family learning device.”

4. Students who don’t have access to devices or the internet at home lose the collaborative and creative opportunities they have during school. “Regarding why digital equity is a social justice issue—there’s opportunity beyond just access to certain devices,” said Michael Mills, assistant professor of teaching and learning at the University of Central Arkansas.

“If students of low income don’t have access to all of their [resources], and all they have it a smartphone or a slow internet connection, how does that impact what they’re going to be able to bring with them to school?”

That 24/7 access leads students to confront the potential that digital access affords them.

5. “If we don’t provide students devices, broadband access, but more importantly, a chance for rich opportunities for challenging work and high-level expectations, we create the Matthew Effect—the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” Mills said. “Kids who have devices and internet at home can make more connections, they keep doing great, but our kids from minority backgrounds don’t have that guidance and don’t get those opportunities—even if they have access to a device or the internet, we’re not always giving them access to opportunities to build those connections.”

6. Devices help educators connect with students, but if students don’t have at-home access, they lose out on that opportunity.

“Devices give us an opportunity to connect and better engage with our students—that’s where I see that social equity,” Mills said.

7. Digital equity turns into a social justice issue when it comes to real-world connections and knowledge, too, Mills said.

“We want to give students the opportunities to go beyond those small mobile devices to the larger devices so they know how to compose documents, fill out forms, and look up health records,” he said. While those tasks might seem rudimentary, people without access often don’t have a chance to develop skills that lead to workplace and real-world success.

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