On this episode of Connected Nation, we talk with a representative within the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology about advancing digital equity within our schools and communities.
Specifically, we’ll look at a new resource that provides a series of recommendations for developing plans to close the Digital Divide and enable technology-empowered learning for ALL.
Free resource guide: https://tech.ed.gov/advancing-digital-equity-for-all/
Digital equity story engine: https://tech.ed.gov/stories/story_tag/digital-equity/
Jessica Denson, Host (00:07):
This is Connected Nation, an award-winning podcast focused on all things broadband from closing the digital divide to improving your internet speeds. We talk technology topics that impact all of us, our families, and our communities. On today's podcast, we talk with a representative within the US Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology about advancing digital equity within our schools and our communities. Specifically, we'll look at a new resource that provides a series of recommendations for developing plans to close the digital divide and enable technology empowered learning for all. I'm Jessica Denson, and this is Connected Nation. I'm Jessica Denson, and today my guest is G Sue Song who serves as the digital equity advisor within the Office of Educational Technology. The office is housed within the US Department of Education's Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. Welcome, gsu.
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (01:03):
Thanks for having me. I'm really looking forward to our chat today.
Jessica Denson, Host (01:07):
I am too. It's, it is great, great resource that you guys are providing for schools and communities across the us so I'm excited to get down to it. But first, I would like to know a little bit of about you and your history and share that with our audience. If you could tell us a little bit about, um, what year past, uh, experience has been, You've really worked at the intersection of education and policy for a long time, correct?
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (01:29):
Right. So right now I serve as the digital equity advisor in the ops of that tech, or o e t, like you mentioned, where my role is to, in general, collaborate with agencies across the federal government to help maximize the impact of programs, policies, run rapid access and digital equity. And directly before this role, um, up until last fall, I served as the senior policy advisor for the International Society for Technology and Education or <inaudible>, uh, where I worked to advance the organization's advocacy priorities around building educator capacity, around the effectiveness of technology.
Jessica Denson, Host (02:02):
And before we discuss the research, can you also, uh, I understand with Itsy, uh, people in our space know what that does and who they are, and, um, your role within the US Department of Education as digital equity advisor. But can you provide a little bit of background on the focus of the Office of Educational Technology as RO as well, because I, myself, until I read this resource, I didn't realize there was a separate, um, entity within the US Department of Education that's focused on that. So if you could explain, um, what that office does, it's, it's where it fits in the framework of the US Department of Ed, and really what it's focus and mission is.
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (02:43):
Sure. So I can start with the mission part. Our mission is to establish really that national vision for how technology can be best used to transform teaching and learning. And we achieve this in a variety of ways from guidance and policy development to strategic investments and coalition building. And a lot of folks might have heard of us through publications like the National Ed Tech Plan, which is our flagship policy document that guides the national vision for ed tech implementation. And then the latest iteration of the n A TP came out in 2017 during the Obama administration, and we're working on the newest, uh, iteration of that right now. Um, during this administration, we're committed to three central priorities, uh, digital inclusion ecosystems and emerging trends. So our digital inclusion priority focuses on connectivity and devices, instructional models and content and digital literacy. We have our ecosystem priority, which, uh, includes supporting an effective digital infrastructure like cybersecurity and interoperability issues, as well as human ecosystems like supporting our educators, education leaders, families and communities. And then finally, the emerging trends in technologies, uh, priority includes visioning, like our efforts with the n e tp, advancing responsible use and design and facilitating discussions around evidence and tech tools.
Jessica Denson, Host (03:58):
So you really have broken it down to tackle each of those things. How, how does that work? Do you usually work with local schools or you work at a higher level to help identify the needs within those three buckets?
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (04:11):
Yeah, it really depends on, you know, the type of project, right? Um, usually we have a fellow or a staff member that leads something within this sort of three priority nine sub priority, uh, framework. And depending on the scope of that, you know, project, um, that sort of determines like who we talk to, whether it be at the state level, whether it be community based organizations, whether it be school boss, But we try to make sure that all of our actions are driven by those who experience it firsthand.
Jessica Denson, Host (04:42):
So you are looking at the experience level as well as Right, people who've had a bigger, broader, uh, bigger picture type of thing at the same time that, that must be very difficult at a national level where you have states that do things differently, and even communities that do things differently versus a national approach. I would take, that takes a lot to navigate.
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (05:02):
Yeah. That's why we count organizations like yours to, you know, do their research on, you know, what is going on, what do we need to understand, what are the major issues, et cetera.
Jessica Denson, Host (05:12):
Um, on that point, um, how critical or important is the need to expand broadband access, i e HighSpeed internet and ha ensure that there's access to connected devices when it comes to education in the us?
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (05:24):
Right. So we can definitely start with the research around the topic, right? Research out at the CU center back in 2020 showed that students who lack access to the internet at home, or if they're dependent on a cell phone, they exhibit, you know, lower digital skills attainment, home or completion rates, gpa, standardized test scores. And that has implications for, you know, post-secondary success workforce readiness, right? On the other hand, the recent research out of, um, ASU shows that widespread broadband adoption has significant impacts on learning outcomes for all students, and especially for our black and brown students. So, and you and I can point to, you know, story after story showing how this has played in either direction, um, in, especially in the last three years of the pandemic. So yeah, you can definitely see a link between broadband and learning outcomes for our students.
Jessica Denson, Host (06:11):
Um, we, since the, the pandemic, and you and I have heard these terms before, of course, uh, the idea of digital learning and the homework gap. Can you explain what digital learning is in, in the classroom versus at home and that type of thing? And what really the homework gap was that was the conversation that people were having pre pandemic,
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (06:32):
Right? So, you know, as we're continuing to recover from the pandemic, we're definitely seeing more of the potential that digital learning and the effectiveness of technology for teaching and learning holds. Uh, we see educators increasingly sort of leveraging the breadth of innovative learning opportunities made possible through technology, You know, including transformative, active uses of, uh, technology that empower students to use, um, digital tools to explore interests, passions, and identities. You know, I had a chance to visit Durham, uh, public library system back in September, and they were fully embracing, you know, this potential, what's possible through their maker spaces and mobile learning lab that allows students to use technology to express their creativity. But aside from the learning part, this also includes, you know, whole learner approaches that are unlock through technology, right? Including connections to social emotional supports, parent educator engagement opportunities, telehealth, telemental health and basic needs, wraparound services.
For example, I recently had a chance to talk with, uh, this, the unified school district in California who serves, you know, many bilingual families. And to ensure that they can meet them where they are, the district deployed their bilingual, uh, family and community liaisons to not only distribute the physical resources like hotspots and devices, but also offer those wraparound supports like digital literacy classes, digital citizenship workshops for parents and caregivers. So yeah, we see the potential that technology holds in the realm of digital learning, and that has become a lot more parents, you know, uh, in the last three years of pandemic.
Jessica Denson, Host (08:00):
Yeah, I think that, um, it was easy at one point to really think, Oh, well, everybody has access to this or understands it. And I think that that really peeled back a lot of the hidden pain points that, that the average person may not be aware of when we had the pandemic that a lot of people were left out, Right. Uh, something I'm sure you were saying long before that, and so is our organization, but, you know, sometimes having a spotlight put on something, there can be some good that comes from that. Absolutely. Um, it's, it's kind of an unprecedented historic moment when it comes to funding right now. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, why, in your opinion, is it's such an important moment in time. It's it's really critical right now, wouldn't you say?
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (08:40):
Yeah. So if anything, there's a greater sense of urgency around this topic that wasn't, you know, quite palpable before, Um, before the pandemic, you know, there was a sense that efforts to advance digital equity for students was sort of a nice to have, right? Um, but when we ought to transition starting to remote and online learning, there were districts and schools that were prepared and could sort of click on the switch right at the moment, right? They had invested in one-to-one initiatives over the last decade. They had worked with their policy makers to ensure that reliable high speed connections were available both from home and at school. They had provided educators with, uh, professional development to integrate technology into their instruction, but there were many others, you know, who weren't prepared and had to scrap together solutions. Um, so that resulted in viral stories like, you know, students and parents who had to drive to the nearest, you know, wi wifi enabled public location where they could get some sort of signal to download what they needed. And fortunately, like you mentioned, we've seen a prioritization of this issue across the country, like you mentioned at the federal level. We have the bipartisan infrastructure law making some historic investments into digital equity and broadband access. And we, at the state level, we're seeing governors, you know, similarly making commitments to make the priority for their administrations.
Jessica Denson, Host (09:54):
Yeah, that would really hopeful time, um, and hopeful that people make a lot of good decisions. Uh, speaking of which, uh, let's get into this new resource from the Office of Educational and Technology, which is why I asked you to join us today. It's called Advancing Digital Equity for All. Uh, I'd like to walk through it step by step, at least give a, a good overview of it for our listeners. Uh, share how developing this piece, uh, this new resource came about.
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (10:20):
Yeah. So when the president signed into law, the bipartisan infrastructure bill in November of last year, we at the Office of Vet Tech and the Department of Education, um, asked ourselves a couple of questions, right? Obviously, the broadband funds, including the Digital Equity Act programs, including the BEAT programs, are administered by our colleagues at the Department of Commerce and nt I a. So what is the Department of Education's role going to be in helping support that effort, Right? In maximizing the impact of the $65 billion, uh, broadband package in the bill, especially as state leaders, you know, create plans for spending these dollars, and in carrying out this role, how are we going to increase access for learners, families and educators, um, that are in communities furthest from digital opportunities? So these types of questions were led to the digital Equity Education round tables or Deer initiative.
And through that initiative, we held a series of national conversations with communities and organizations that are championing education and digital access, including some, um, families and students themselves. Uh, we use the findings from all of these conversations to develop some guidance for leaders as they develop their state digital equity plans under the Digital Equity Act. And we're continuing to spur action and commitments among different sectors in the digital equity ecosystem who we know need to get involved. So we've had some strategic conversations with various key players like our education, non-profits, state and district leaders, philanthropies, industry leaders, think tanks, research organizations, anyone that we know needs to be activated and contributing to our collective effort to advance, uh, digital equity.
Jessica Denson, Host (11:57):
That's fantastic to have such a well-rounded, uh, set of voices in that. And like I said earlier, it has to be a difficult challenge. Uh, just wanna pause quickly. You mentioned the Digital Equity Act. Could you explain from our, to our listeners what that is intended to do?
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (12:12):
Right. So I think, uh, I don't wanna, uh, speak on behalf of bi cogs at ntia, but I'll sp I'll try to do my best. You know, it's meant to be sort of a compliment to the BEAD program, right? That 42 billion program that is really meant to build out that physical infrastructure, um, necessary to ensure broadband access. But the Digital Equity Act, although it's a smaller program, has some flexibilities to make sure that, you know, we're taking care of the human level barriers that impede access from, and, you know, many of our students and communities, right? So we're really looking forward to the potential that the BEAT Program and the Digital Equity Act program can the serving conjunction with one another, um, to, um, the best of our students. You know, $3 billion isn't a small amount of money by, by any means. And, you know, I think the program is divided into sort of three separate components. Do we have the planning grants, which states are receiving right now? We have the capacity building grants, which states will receive once they develop their plans to help implement those plans. And then there's sort of the competitive grant opportunity to allow other players in the ecosystem that I mentioned to sort of help sort of advance our, uh, collective vision for digital equity.
Jessica Denson, Host (13:27):
Yeah, I think those planning grants were an important piece of the puzzle to make sure that people are, are tackling this in an intelligent and data-informed way. Uh, uh, what were some of the insights gained from the conversations? You mentioned just a few moments ago, anything that you found surprising? Do you wanna share three or four insights from those conversations?
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (13:45):
Sure. Not anything surprising per se, but we found that access, you know, is comprised of three critical elements of availability, affordability, and adoption, right? And this three, a framework is what organizes a new guidance resource. Um, we recognize that for equitable access to happen, we need to ensure that all three aspects are addressed in parallel to one another, right? Availability pointing to the physical infrastructure like the cell towers that need to go up, the fiber networks, underground affordability, the family's ability to pay for the total cost of maintaining access. We have, you know, our colleagues from the FCC working on that through things like the affordable connectivity program, and then the adoption piece when we saw for the availability and affordability, uh, barriers. We can't just say mission accomplished, like I mentioned, We still need to think about the human level barriers that often impeded access in some communities, like access to information, access to technical support, digital skills and literacy building opportunities. And in the guidance you'll find that we intentionally give the most attention to the issue with adoption. Um, because, you know, as our federal colleagues at the FCC and NT I a tackle issues of availability and affordability, we really saw the Department of Education's role in driving home the fact that, like I mentioned, we can't just tackle availability and affordability and same mission accomplished. We need to tackle digital equity from a human, um, approach as well.
Jessica Denson, Host (15:06):
And is that what you really hope that schools and education leaders take away from this resource? That this is, here's a, a step by step guide, or, or what is it that you really, that you and your teams really hope that school leaders and education leaders can use? How can they leverage this resource for their school districts?
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (15:25):
Right. So there's really two things that I hope the education sector takes away. First, we want to build awareness of the opportunities under bipartisan infrastructure law to close both the digital divide and the digital use divide that we've observed and experienced for way too long, right? I've, you know, had some conversations with, you know, folks in the education sector that, you know, weren't aware that this was an opportunity for them. So we want to make sure that we're activating our communities to participate in the digital equity planning process. Secondly, we hope that this resource, you know, empowers the education community to get directly involved in their state's digital equity planning efforts. Uh, you know, we need to make sure that the needs of our learners are front and center in these digital equity plans, right? Um, many of our educators and education leaders have really seen the impact of the digital divide firsthand, especially over the last three years.
And their voices will be really critical developing an effective digital equity plan. So we're really encouraging them to find out, you know, the lead agency at their states that it's going to develop those plans. Um, the Broadband USA website on, uh, developed by ntia is a great resource to start that research, and we encourage them to engage these leaders and the guidance resource that O e t release can provide some thought starters around the types of items, the barriers and strategies that you can discuss with these leaders. Right? I, uh, recently joined a convening hosted by the National Governments Association that brought together their state teams back in August, um, helping them think about how to incorporate education into their digital equity plans, and then appeared that, you know, a lot of states are just now being to think about how to engage their stakeholders most effectively. So one thing we're encouraging, especially, you know, SEAS and LEAs to do, is think about convening maybe a roundtable conversation opportunity, allowing state broadband and education leaders to come together and achieve some sort of consensus around the needs of the education sector and assets it can provide during the digital equity planning and implementation process. And in these discussions, we have to identify specific strategies that will ensure equitable access for various learner populations who are Optum marginalized.
Jessica Denson, Host (17:34):
So let me ask this question. I just wanna kind of throw a curve ball your way, just a little bit. It's, Yeah. Um, <laugh>, uh, you know, this has to, I would imagine for an educator or even a state leader or anybody in that kind of space who's making decisions that affect our kids, Uh, this, the idea of technology might feel a little difficult to, to, to bite into, a little difficult to figure out, uh, is will this help guide them somewhat in that direction, in asking the right questions and what they need to know, or, uh, does it provide some advice or guidance in that, in that sort of way?
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (18:13):
Right? The guidance really provides two things, right? From our conversations, we were able to, um, get an understanding of the unique barriers that our learners face when it comes to the issue of digital equity and some promising strategies that have been implemented in different communities across the country to navigate those barriers. So, you know, again, the guidance of serve as a thought starter at, you know, encouraging state broadband leaders in education. Thats to think about do the barriers that are cited in the guidance resonate within our states? And if it does, can the strategies that we sort of suggest in the guidance be something that can be looked into, explore more, invested into, um, to really serve the needs of our learners? So that's what, uh, the guidance is intended to do, to serve as a conversation starter around, you know, whether the barriers and strategies can be something that leads to something in those digital equity plans. Does that make sense?
Jessica Denson, Host (19:12):
Yes. Fantastic. Um, I'll include a link to the resource guide in the description of this podcast that leaders can access easily. Um, now that this is out, are the, what's up next for the Office of Educational Technology? What are you guys working on?
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (19:25):
Yeah, so we're going to lead three work streams to build that on the momentum that we built from the Deere initiative. Um, states we know have roughly a year from this fall to develop their digital equity plans, and we know that this will be a really critical window for O E T and the Department of Ed to deliver support on behalf of the education sector. Um, so these three work streams are already underway somewhat at O E T. Were amplifying, you know, community based recommendations from our guidance by activating all of our communications channels like this interview today, <laugh>, Uhhuh <affirmative>. Uh, we're also going to be uplifting local stories and North star examples of adoption solutions that states can explore and invest in. And we'll be uploading those to tech dot ed dot go slash stories. We know that, you know, a lot of, you know, state leaders are sort of, uh, state broadband offices are sort of new, so we want to make sure that they have an idea of the types of, you know, strategies and solutions that are promising and work in different contexts. A third, we're going to be supporting strategic implementation of digital equity plans. We're right now exploring the right ways to engage in opportunities where state education leaders can achieve consensus with their counterparts and state broadband, uh, offices. So more on that and just hopefully in the near future, <laugh>.
Jessica Denson, Host (20:42):
Well, that's, that's wonderful. I think a lot of, like you said, a lot of these new, um, a lot of these, these offices, state brand offices are new and, and trying to figure their way out and figure what the next next steps are. So I think that's very important. Um, I've had journalists ask me, um, and I'll have one last question, I promise to let you go for the day. Sure. Um, I've had a lot of journalists ask me, what are, what is something, what is the mistake that people can make right now or our leaders can make right now? And for us, it's really find someone who understands the space. You know, we all have to partner, we all have to work together on this cause it's a very big problem. Um, but find people who have experience and understand this. What words of advice would you like to leave others with?
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (21:25):
Right? I want to sort of, you know, underline and highlight and bold, sort of the main sort of thesis, if you will, from our guidance that digital equity can't stop that, you know, building out the necessary physical infrastructure, buying the devices, and making those options affordable. Don't get me wrong, all of those things are very, very much needed at this moment. But there are human level barriers that are very unique to, uh, students and their families that need to be served through the digital equity planning, um, efforts right now. So the guidance really clarifies what we mean by adoption issues. Um, there have been some discussions around what we mean by adoption, but we wanted to make sure that we're shining a light into the adoption barriers that are unique to students with disabilities, that are unique to adult learners, that are unique to migratory or undocumented students. So we're hoping that, you know, state leaders add their, developing their digital equity plans, really consider the human level approaches that they need to invest into, in parallel with those availability and affordability solutions to really, you know, move that needle on equity.
Jessica Denson, Host (22:33):
Uh, we would echo that. Bravo. Um, thank you so much, gsu. I I really appreciate your time today and, um, as you have new things come out or, uh, updates, I would love to revisit.
Ji Soo Song, Digital Equity Advisor (22:45):
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for the work that Connect Mission is doing to accelerate digital equity. And thank you to your listeners for their efforts. As community leaders, advocates, problem solvers, we believe that your voice truly matters. In closing the digital equity gap,
Jessica Denson, Host (23:04):
Again, we've been talking with GSU Song who serves as the Digital equity advisor within the Office of Educational Technology, which is housed within the U US Department of Education. I'll include a link to the free resource guide titled Advancing Digital Equity for All in the description of this podcast, so you can find it and share it with your school leaders, local state leaders, community leaders. I'm Jessica Enson. Thanks for listening to Connected Nation. If you like our show and wanna know more about us, head to connect to nation.org or look for our latest episodes on iTunes, iHeartRadio, Google Podcast, Pandora, or Spotify.