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June 7, 2021
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JP O'Hare

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State Education Department Identifies Priority Areas to Make Progress Toward Digital Equity Across New York State

Third Summit to be Held June 15 on Digital Equity Issues in P-12 Education

The State Education Department today released “Achieving Digital Equity in New York: An Outline for Collaborative Change,” a report that compiles priorities identified during Digital Equity Summits held earlier this year, State Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa announced. The Board of Regents and State Education Department convened two Digital Equity Summits to establish a shared understanding of digital inequity and create a joint vision toward achieving digital equity in New York State. A third Summit is scheduled for June 15 and will focus on Digital Equity Issues in P-12 education. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the disproportionately harmful effects of digital inequity in terms of health, employment, and education on people of color and those who are economically disadvantaged, as well as the need for a digital justice movement that incorporates community-driven networking solutions,” Board of Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young said. “We must seize this tremendous opportunity to promote diversity, equity and inclusion with significant investments and policies implemented at the federal, state and local levels to increase the availability and affordability of internet service.”

“Internet access has become crucial to everyday life as well as teaching and learning during the pandemic,” Commissioner Rosa said.  “It is imperative that we do everything possible to ensure that New York’s children have equal opportunities to connect and receive a meaningful education. The work to achieve meaningful progress toward digital equity must be inclusive and requires input and effort from many sectors, including education, local and state government, and business. We must also include our young people, who are the stewards of technology and innovation.”

Digital Equity Work and Data Collection

Building on the Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 digital equity in education surveys, the Board of Regents and the State Education Department convened Digital Equity Summits in February and March to establish a shared understanding of digital inequity and create a joint vision toward achieving digital equity in New York State.

A wide range of stakeholders and experts representing education, government, business and community organizations participated on Summit panels, allowing NYSED to gather valuable input about the challenges of digital inequities and potential solutions. Approximately 400 people attended the first two summits, both of which were held virtually.

Based on conversations with stakeholders and experts at the Summits, the Department identified three priority areas for change that can result in meaningful progress in working toward digital equity across the state and across sectors:

  • Make Digital Inclusion a State Level Priority;
  • Create and Sustain Thriving Digital Equity Ecosystems Across the Entire State; and
  • Achieve a Digital Justice Mindset.

Make Digital Inclusion a State Level Priority

One priority identified as a result of the Digital Equity Summits is state-level prioritization of digital inclusion. Digital inclusion refers to the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and can make use of information and communications technologies. This includes five elements:

  • Affordable, robust broadband internet service;
  • Internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user;
  • Access to digital fluency training;
  • Quality technical support; and
  • Applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self- sufficiency, participation and collaboration.

The report finds that, until now, New York’s investment in and attention to broadband access have not been accompanied by a proportional investment in digital inclusion efforts to improve broadband adoption. State government is an essential partner in ensuring that New Yorkers have both access to affordable, robust broadband internet service and the devices, training and support they need to fully benefit from the opportunities the internet promises.

NYSED’s digital equity surveys found that there are still people across the state without access to the internet in their places of residence and that cost remains the most significant barrier to internet adoption. Summit participants indicated that building infrastructure for access without accompanying policy to provide support and engagement will fail to achieve digital equity goals.

Thriving Digital Equity Ecosystems Across the State

The report finds that digital inequity is a complex and multi-faceted problem, and closing digital equity gaps will require the coordination cooperation, and the intentional capacity-building of the many organizations supporting digital inclusion across New York.

Establishing connections between these disparate organizations can help regions develop models intended to achieve household internet access, device ownership, and a full range of goals-based digital literacy skills and sustained technology support.

Importantly, establishing coalitions now will prepare communities and regions to put federal, state, and philanthropic funding to good use when it’s available for digital equity work.

Shift from Digital Equity to Digital Justice

The report finds that the root causes of digital inequity cannot be separated from the root causes of racism, opportunity gaps and other systems of oppression. Meaningful progress toward digital equity can allow New York to:

  • Create systems for community empowerment;
  • Design digital equity solutions to achieve racial justice; and
  • Center people typically excluded from online participation due to race, income, disability, language, sexuality, geography, or other barriers in digital equity planning and solution implementation. 

There was a near unified call from advocates who participated in Digital Equity Summits to establish the “internet as a utility,” which is an important regulatory distinction that provides an opportunity to think of internet as public infrastructure – like water or electricity – rather than a commodity.

Next Steps

The State Library is developing a range of programs to advance the priorities laid out in this report. These programs are part of libraries’ overall work to serve communities during and after the pandemic in bold, creative and critical ways.

The Department will:

  • Prepare the state, our partners and stakeholders to make effective use of federal stimulus money and promote federal digital equity programs;
  • Continue to expand on the goals outlined in this report and the change ideas shared by stakeholders at the Summits and share this information with NYSED’s network of partners;
  • Host a third and final Digital Equity Summit on June 15, 2021 to explore digital equity issues as they pertain to P-12 education specifically; and
  • Develop a digital equity plan for the Department, leveraging the Department’s capacity in addressing the above change ideas where feasible and appropriate.

Information on resources supporting these recommendations and further detailing the results of the Digital Equity Summit may be found on the State Library website.