Connected Nation

A call to action for closing the digital access, design, and use divides

February 14, 2024 Jessica Denson Season 5 Episode 5
Connected Nation
A call to action for closing the digital access, design, and use divides
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On Season 5 Episode 5, we walk through the 2024 National Educational Technology Plan. It examines how technologies can raise the bar for elementary and secondary students – and offers solutions already being utilized by schools, districts, and states to close digital inequities in learning. 

We are joined today by one of those who helped author that plan, Zac Chase, who is a Digital Equity Impact Fellow within the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.

Recommended Links:
Read the plan ->

U.S. Department of Education Releases 2024 National Educational Technology Plan | U.S. Department of Education

Educator Preparation Programs for Digital Equity and Transformation - Office of Educational Technology

Assistive Technology Devices and Services for Children With Disabilities Under the IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Myths and Facts Surrounding Assistive Technology Devices and Services (PDF) (

Digital Safety | Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center (

Jessica Denson (00:09):

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 neighborhoods. The US Department of Education Res released its 2024 National Educational Technology Plan. It examines how technologies can raise the bar for elementary and secondary students and offer solutions already being utilized by schools, districts, and states to close digital inequities. In learning today, we talk to one of those who helped author this plan about what it means for education in America. I'm Jessica Denson, and this is Connected Nation. I'm Jessica Desen, and today my guest is Zach Chase, who is the Digital Equity Impact Fellow within the Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology, also referred to as the OET Department. Welcome, Zach. 

Zachary Chase (01:05):

Hi. Thanks for having me. 

Jessica Denson (01:07):

I'm excited to have you join us today. We had a little bit of technical issue, but we've got it under control now. Zach and I were chatting. He is in Illinois and I am in Kentucky right now. And one of my favorite topics, as some of our audience members may know is pets. I have cats. You have dogs. Tell us again, your dog, your two dogs. Their names 

Zachary Chase (01:33):

Penelope and Phyllis. 

Jessica Denson (01:35):

I love it. You also have two children, correct? 

Zachary Chase (01:39):

I do, yes. 

Jessica Denson (01:40):

Yeah, which is pertinent to what we're talking about because education, they're 12 and four. And Zach, is it all right if I share that you're a single father? 

Zachary Chase (01:50):


Jessica Denson (01:51):

Yeah. Doing good things. Before we dive into the report, as you can tell, I like to give people a little bit of idea of who we're talking about and your personality, and you're very affable. So give us an idea of your background experience in the education space. 

Zachary Chase (02:09):

Sure. I know that a lot of people have transitioned from a lot of different things they want to be when they grow up, but from middle school, I knew I wanted to be an educator, and so went to college, did my undergrad, got my teaching certificate, and then moved into the classroom as a secondary ELA teacher from there, went and did a master's degree in education, policy and management, and then worked at the district level in Colorado, worked for the department briefly and the Obama administration, and then went back to the district level, and now I'm back with the Department of Education in O 

Jessica Denson (02:49):

And being in the different areas of education. Do you feel like that gives you a well-rounded idea of how the system quote at all different levels? 

Zachary Chase (03:01):

I hope so. It gives me an understanding of that all of the systems are unique to themselves, so I know that I come with an understanding of the systems in which I've operated, but I also know that context and culture matter and so that there are solutions that are almost fits that we can port from one system to another, but that every context requires its own specific approach to solving some of these problems. And I think that that varied experience has helped me to understand that we can't just say everybody should do one thing and then expect it to work equally effectively. I think parenting is also helpful in understanding that too, is that what I do to help one of my kids solve a problem is different than what I can do to help the other kids solve a problem, because each situation requires its own finesse. 

Jessica Denson (03:57):

I bet there's a lot of parents out there nodding their head that each child is just, you have to even approach from personality to how they learn to all kinds of things when it comes to kids. As I mentioned in my intro, your current role is a digital equity impact fellow. Explain what that role entails and how you define digital equity. 

Zachary Chase (04:19):

Oh my goodness, that's a big, well, the second part of that's a pretty big question. The role specifically for this go round is leading the development of the national educational technology plan. So that is the main thrust of my job. I also have taken on a number of different other roles and pieces within OET, but yeah, really my work is focused on the development and now communication of the ed tech plan. Digital equity, there's a formal statutory definition of digital equity that I cannot quote to you right now, but as it's imagined within the realm of the NETP, there are kind of three pieces of equity that we look at. The first is around access, and that's kind of a traditional way that we talk about the digital divide, right? So that's equity of access to connectivity to devices and to digital resources or digital learning resources depending on context. 

With this new version of the ed tech plan, we conceive of that as an equity of accessibility as well. So asking states and districts and schools, are you setting a baseline of expectations for how accessible anything you're purchasing might be to make sure that no matter the learning difference or the different elements of a student's profile that they can access the thing that you're buying, accessibility. But we also think equity of helping kids prepare to be safe and healthy digital citizens as an element of access in the same way that my parents didn't just fill up a tank of gas and throw me the keys and say, go learn how to drive. But instead, there was a driver's education program. There were a number of different benchmarks. So part of what we say there is an equity of preparation to make sure that all students have all of the skills that they need to be safe and healthy citizens online. 

So that's one element of digital equity. And then within this EdTech plan, we would say that the digital design divide is equity between educators who have the support and time and space necessary to design learning experiences for all kids using the technological tools that are available to them. And then those educators who don't have those supports. And sometimes that's within a school, so that one teacher could have a lot of time to go to conferences, to do webinars, to listen to podcasts, and really understand deeply how to design using technology. And the teacher next door says, I would love to do that, but I have these other pieces, so I can't do that on my own time. And so it calls for an equity of support for all educators to be able to build their skills to use these tools. And we know there are hundreds, if not thousands of tools available within given classroom or school at any given time. 

So we need professional learning support to help teachers understand how to navigate those tools to help all kids learn. And then the last piece of equity, I would say, is around the equity of use. And this was a piece that we highlighted in the 2016 NETP, but one that I think is incredibly important. If we really want all of our students to be ready for the futures, they'll inherit. And that is making sure that all educational experiences are asking students to actively use technology. And what I mean by that is are they creating things? Are they analyzing things? Are they really engaging at the top of their intelligence to analyze sources to create things that are of value to their communities and their cultures? Or are they being asked to do things in a passive way? And we find a lot of students are, some research shows us that the disparities of use are along the lines of historically marginalized students or students from historically marginalized backgrounds tend to be asked to do much more passive things with technology than their peer group. 

And that passive use can have a neutral or negative effect on learning. So really if we think if we solve this access divide and then we solve this design divide so that all educators have the support they need, then we're going to see real active use for all students across the board. So that's a much longer probably than you thought definition of digital equity. But when we're thinking about this problem, we need to understand that it has some intricacies that require us to say, oh, it's not just did we buy everybody the stuff they needed, but do all the humans in the system have the capacity and capabilities they need as well? 

Jessica Denson (09:17):

And when it comes to that, how do you even measure that when you're looking at this plan like this and developing a call? It's called, let me just back up just a little bit. It was published in January. It's meant for this year. It's the National Educational Technology Plan. It's titled A Call for Action for Closing Digital Access Design and Use Divides, which are those three divides that you're talking about. But how do you even go into a place and measure or look at that and even see what works and what doesn't work for the different things? Since there are so many different ways and different levels and different things that you have to approach, it seems like it would be a little bit daunting to try to tackle that. 

Zachary Chase (10:03):

Sure. I think part of it is setting a vision of where you want to go. So within the recommendations of each section, the prime recommendation is developing a profile of what you want and hope for people. So within the use divide is what's your profile of a learner or a graduate? What are your expectations? What are your hopes? Because we don't know what to do if we don't know where we're trying to go. And then within the design divide, we're saying, alright, if this is what we want for students, what's a profile of an educator within this system? What are the habits and capacities we want to build in them to help them be able to get all students where we want them to be? And then if you go back to the access divide, it's alright, if this is what our teachers need to be able to do and what we're hoping from them, and this is what our students need to be able to do and what we're hoping from them, then what is our profile of a learning environment? 

So what are our spaces, physical and digital need to be able to get where we want to go? So the first question is asking, what do we want? What is our goal for the system? And there are some commonalities there that are probably true across the board. So if we are saying, what's our profile of a learning environment, then all students need to be able to access the tools they need. So that would be in a part of our profile of a learning environment. But there are also some pieces that are really specific to context Context. So you won't find a specific recommended profile of any of those three things within the NA tp, but instead you'll find some questions that hopefully help all of the states and districts think through what it is they're looking for. We also highlight some places that have already done this. Nevada comes to mind as one of our examples of setting a profile of a graduate or a learner. And we highlight their process because they made that incredibly transparent. And so that's where I would say we need to start is saying, what is it we're actually looking for? What are we trying to do here? And then go back and say, alright, how are we going to get there? 

Jessica Denson (12:04):

And that is something I was going to bring up is that this report does have examples of those that are already those schools, those districts, those states that are already taking some action. Correct. And so that there's something that others can look at and model their approach after. Am I right in that? 

Zachary Chase (12:25):

Yes. Yes, absolutely. It was incredibly important to us as we were developing this plan to make sure that if we say this is a national educational technology plan, that the nation can see itself within its pages or within its digital version. So there are examples from each of the 50 states, at least one example from each state as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the juvenile justice system. So yeah, we wanted to also make sure that these examples highlight the fact that people are doing this work, right? It's not, let's get started from ground zero. It is, let's recognize that we are making these moves and no matter what your culture or context, somebody similar to you has already probably solved a version of the problems that you're facing. And so we wanted to draw some connective tissue there so that folks don't feel like they're doing this alone. 

Jessica Denson (13:14):

And there, just as an aside, is there a different approach to this when it's at the state level versus a district level? I know each state, they handle their schools, their public schools in different ways. Some states have a state school board, some it's local, some of it's it's different approaches. Does it matter or can a lot of these things be applied at all the different levels? 

Zachary Chase (13:42):

Well, we went through and if folks go through and look at the plan, they will see that each of the sets of recommendations that start off each section are tagged with whether or not this is a recommendation that applies to states, districts, or schools. And there are some that are, you can do this at a state and a district or a school, or there are some that are kind specific to each of those levels. One of the recommendations is around the establishment of an ed tech director as a cabinet position. And so that's a recommendation that we say this should help create change at both the state and district level. And so that's a recommendation for both of those sides of things. There's also things that states have that can set the stage for districts. So we talk a lot about procurement. So states can ease the way to procurement and leverage a larger purchasing power to help some of the districts that it might be smaller and not able to get as good a deal. States can leverage an element of scale that maybe districts can't. So that would fall more readily within the purview of states, but it's not limited to that. 

Jessica Denson (14:59):

That's great. So you're breaking it down in all the different levels, these buckets that you've put it in to make it easy to understand and focus on these different areas of need. But do you feel closing those inequities is a goal that we can actually reach or does the goal line keep moving? 

Zachary Chase (15:21):

I think the goal line will always keep moving. So these are the problems that we see now today. So it isn't, the language isn't a perfect union. It is a more perfect union. And so I think education can look to those guiding and founding principles and say, how do we make it better and closer to perfect today for all of our students and teachers? So I think do I think we can absolutely get connectivity around the country to everybody who needs it? Yes. Do I think that that connectivity will surface new challenges? Absolutely. And I think we're ready and equal to the task as well. So yes, I think we can solve the problems we know about now, and I think once we do that, we'll be in a better position to solve new problems as they arise. 

Jessica Denson (16:06):

And this isn't the first time that the organization has looked at the need for technology. There's been other reports going back years. Share how things have changed in your opinion and where you see things going. In other words, how have we built upon the data that we found in the past and how are we using that to highlight areas of need moving forward? 

Zachary Chase (16:32):

Sure. That's a fantastic question. I will admit here, if it hasn't already come through to being a pretty big nerd on this topic, so if folks go to ETP and they scroll down, we actually have all of the previous iterations of the NP posted. And so I was going back and looking at the original NE TP published in 1996 and looking at what it was calling for from action. So there's a lot of mention of the information, which just brought me back. And so one of the pieces it called for is all schools getting connected and then all classrooms having the devices they need. And we are much, much closer to that. We're not there yet. There are still some wicked problems that we need to solve, but we've made great strides over the last couple of decades and certainly within the last five years in making that happen. 

So I would say that that has been a great piece. One of the things that the 96 plan calls for is that all educators have the support they need to better understand how to use those tools. So that was a space that as I was looking through those initial recommendations, okay, yeah, we've got connectivity, we've got devices, we've got digital resources, this is great. We're doing a good job here. Oh my goodness, this issue of professional learning has been there from the very beginning, which is not entirely surprising, but I would say that if there's a space where we can make the most improvement in the next few years, that's the one, right? We've got more access to connectivity devices and resources than we've ever had before, and now we need to take a breath and help all educators make sure they've got what they need to use those to help students learn. 

Jessica Denson (18:18):

I think that really leads into my next question. I want to know what you hope educators or state leaders take away from this plan. Is it that, is it to focus on that education piece or that professional development piece rather? 

Zachary Chase (18:33):

Personally, yes. I would say yes. I think that is the biggest opportunity for growth. And I think if you look at Secretary Cardona's priorities around raising the bar, improving those conditions for educators is a focus of the administration. And I think it is where we will possibly see the biggest improvement or realization of the potential of educational technology or technology and education in the next few years. If we can reimagine how we support teachers, if we can give them the time and space necessary, then they can do some really amazing things. I'll give an example if that's okay. Yes, you've got an eighth grade student who has a print disability or a reading disability. And so that in of itself is not unheard of. Now let's say that that student is in an eighth grade science class, and let's say that a teacher assigns the content as a reading, maybe it's an e textbook, maybe it's a paper textbook, but they assign that student reading to do to understand science, but that student has a print disability or a reading disability, they're not going to be able to access that content, which is going to look like they can't learn the science, but it's not a science disability. 

And so helping all teachers be able to say, oh, I can assign a reading, I can assign at the same time a simulation. I can assign a podcast, I can assign a video that I can give my students options for how they experience this information, the same information. I'm not lowering or changing my standards, but I'm recognizing I can put out a profile of technologies so that all students are able to access and experience and gain knowledge. Then we can also attend to that reading or printability, but I'm not also letting it manifest as a science disability. And I think that's the potential, but the teachers are going to need support in learning how to design that. I think about my own training as an educator and nobody said, Hey, how are you going to use five tools in your classroom at the same time to help folks do that? 

Now, the benefit and what we really have help here, and if you look through the N etp, we know that the Universal Design for Learning framework helps us to think through how we design those learning experiences. And we have methods and we have research that shows that, one, it's effective, but two, it can be done to help all students move their learning forward. And I think that's a key component of making the time and space for educators to have the learning necessary to get up to speed. If you think about what has changed in the 30, almost 30 years since the 96 plan and the tools that are available, I mean, there were no tablet computers, smartphones weren't on our radar. So you think about all of the things that teachers have access to now or students have access to now, and I don't know that we've said, oh, the tools are exponential. We should probably make our professional learning opportunities exponential as well. 

Jessica Denson (21:58):

In many school rooms, there aren't any traditional chalkboards anymore. It's big screens and stuff, which surprised me recently when I was in a school doing a story on remote learning. But that is one thing. I also wonder, does the study talk about the homework gap at all the need for technology when people go home after school? Or is it all just within the school districts and the confine of the schools? 

Zachary Chase (22:28):

It talks about both of those pieces and the administration, the Biden Harris administration has done a pretty remarkable job of helping us to close that homework gap. But yes, and it says, I think the key guidance there is for schools, classrooms, and districts that haven't solved that equation to say, what are you asking students to do when they leave your halls? So if you are asking students to do things that they don't have the tools and capabilities and resources to do, once they leave the building, then we need to rethink what we're asking them to do. So saying, how are you, this is that design piece, right? Saying, oh, I didn't think about the fact that even though they take their laptop or their Chromebook home, they might not have connectivity. I didn't think about that. I might need to redesign that. So it's those kinds of design decisions or kind of, oh, they could download this to those devices before they leave, and I need to build that into my practice as well. So really asking folks to say, do you know how to make these decisions and have you made these considerations? And are you talking about it as a system? Are you leaving it to chance? 

Jessica Denson (23:45):

Are there any new projects or studies that are underway within the department that you're pretty excited about or that you can share? 

Zachary Chase (23:55):

This is the one that I'm the most excited about right now, I'll be honest. So this is kind of all I've got at the forefront of my brain. I will say that one piece that is tremendously exciting, and it's some work that the department is doing with the folks at isti is around education preparation programs. So this is the idea that we can better make sure that novice teachers who are entering classrooms for the first time understand these ecosystems of technology and understand how to design so that it doesn't fall to schools and districts to backfill that understanding. So that is some work that I'm really excited about, and we've gotten nearly a hundred institutions of higher ed that have signed on to our EP pledge and said, yes, we're going to do a much better job of weaving these expectations and experiences through our teacher preparation program so that they are ready to thrive in these tech enabled classrooms. So I would say that that is the other piece. If it's not NETP, it's that EPP piece. I would also, actually, now that I'm thinking about it, I've got two others in there that I want to mention. Go 

Jessica Denson (25:09):

For it. Share please. 

Zachary Chase (25:11):

The same day we released the NETP are out of OET, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services released some kind of myth busting guidance around assistive technology. And I think that that is one of the most powerful documents for special education that we've released in the last couple of years at least. And so that one is really excited and the conversation, what do 

Jessica Denson (25:38):

By myth, what do you mean by myth busting? 

Zachary Chase (25:42):

I don't want to generalize my experience, but part of my teacher preparation, we talked very lightly around the idea of assistive technology, and then I was kind of sent out into the field and it was somebody's job at the district or the school to work and manage assistive technology. But as a general content teacher, I didn't have that experience. And so this is a document that is made for schools and educators to be able to say, alright, why do I not really understand about assistive technology? Or what do I think I understand about assistive technology? And then giving some clarification to the field of, okay, we can do this better. And so that part is really exciting. 

Jessica Denson (26:25):

That is 

Zachary Chase (26:26):

Exciting. The other side is pulled together all of the federal resources that have been developed for kids online safety and our REMS center has built a searchable database for schools and districts to be able to find those resources. So if you are an educator or a system that's thinking, alright, we've heard about this issue of sex exploitation and we don't know how to attack it, or we don't know how to prepare our kids to be safe in these spaces, then you can use some of these resources and say, okay, this gets us started down this path of making sure our kids are safe and healthy online. So I'd say that those are two other pieces that I'm really excited about right now. 

Jessica Denson (27:19):

If you send me some links for those, I will include them in the description of our podcast so our viewers, our listeners can get to 'em and also look at those pieces as well. And I'll include a link to the study that we've been talking about today. Fantastic. On that note, yeah, send them my way and I'll make sure that they have them. On that note, if there's one thing you hope our listeners remember from today's conversation, what would it be? Or is there something we didn't touch on in the study that we should have discussed? 

Zachary Chase (27:54):

Fantastic question. I would say the one thing I hope folks take away is that when we talk about the digital divide, that it is more complex of an issue than just connectivity devices and tools, that there are multiple facets that we need to be solving for to really leverage those investments to make sure that all the humans in these systems are getting the support and experiences they need to really realize the potential to be prepared not just for the future, but for the world that exists now as we're in it. So I think that this is a much more complex issue than just saying digital divide and that we need to ask, okay, what have we solved and what are the next problems we're going to tackle? 

Jessica Denson (28:46):

That's a great place to leave it. Zach, thank you so much for sharing details about this study and sharing your expertise in this area. Really appreciate the time you've given us today. 

Zachary Chase (28:57):

My pleasure, Jessica. Thanks for having me on 

Jessica Denson (29:06):

Again. We've been talking to Zach Chase, who is the Digital Equity Impact fellow within the Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. He's part of the team that developed the 2024 National Education Educational Plan titled A Call to Action for Closing Digital Access Design, and Use Divides. I'll include a link to it in the description of this podcast. Coming up this season on Connected Nation, we'll talk to the co-author of a new report that examines how states are approaching reforms to telehealth laws, from allowing access to specialists across borders, to creating more flexibility for innovation. Plus, we Mark Black History Month with a round table discussion with black leaders in technology and digital inclusion. I'm Jessica Denson. Thanks for listening. If you like our show and want to know more about us, head to connect to or look for the latest episodes on iTunes, iHeart Radio, Google Podcast, Pandora, or Spotify Phi.


Zachary's background
Defining digital equity
Exploring different kinds of "divides"
Reaching goals
What Zachary hopes leaders take away from the report
New projects on the way
Key takeaways
Conclusion + Outro