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Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step Four: Advocate

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Sep 20, 2017

KEYSPOTThis is the final installment of a four-part, how-to blog series on overcoming the digital divide, an extension of ILA’s recent brief.

Too often, education policy changes are made without consulting those who are most attuned the everyday realities of today’s students—the teachers themselves.

Teacher ownership is a powerful construct with the potential to create meaningful change in schools and systems. As state departments of education revise accountability systems to meet the new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), now, more than ever, teachers have opportunities to contribute to these changes as architects—not just as implementers.

Using the City of Philadelphia as a case study, and advice from Jennifer Kobrin, director of digital initiatives for the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Adult Education (formerly the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy), we outlined how teachers can take on a greater role in addressing digital equity challenges.

If the poorest big city in the United States can bring digital support fellows, technology integration specialists, and high-speed Internet access to its school district, so can your city. Here’s how.

Leverage community partnerships

Kobrin, who formerly served as senior director at nonprofit Foundations, Inc., and a content specialist at the U.S. Department of Education initiative You4Youth, says coalitions facilitate the sharing of community resources while lending visibility and credibility to individual members. She has demonstrated the value of coalition building in her own work with KEYSPOT, a network of public, private, and nonprofit organizations that provide technology, training, and other opportunities through more than 50 public access centers.

“I think it’s really all about building partnerships with other organizations in the community,” says Kobrin. “When that grant opportunity comes along, they like to see really well-defined partnerships and know that you’re not working in isolation.”

Before you mobilize, look at the efforts that are already underway and identify areas where collaboration makes sense. For example, the School District of Philadelphia is a part of the Digital Literacy Alliance, a coalition of 19 diverse stakeholders, including government entities, telecommunications companies, media agencies, universities, nonprofits, and more, that are all working to alleviate the digital divide in Philadelphia.

The Open Technology Institute found that the following organizations play a critical role in the long-term sustainability of local technology investments:

  • Churches and faith-based social services
  • Community-based organizations, community centers
  • Libraries
  • Educational and workforce programs
  • Social service facilities
  • Cooperatives (food, child care, etc.)
  • Makerspaces
  • Major bandwidth buyers (hospitals, technology firms, universities)
  • Commercial internet service providers

If there is no existing coalition within your community, start your own—use the list above to create a list of potential partners, find out what resources they offer, and conduct outreach to determine their capacity and interest in collaborating.   

Set an agenda

From broadband connectivity to one-to-one initiatives to online learning, which digital divide issues are most important to your school and district? Where can you make the most impact?

Community engagement is about not only communicating to a community but also creating an opportunity for feedback and dialogue. Community members who have been traditionally excluded from such processes should be among the first to be invited to participate—enlisting all institutions will bring a diverse perspectives, ideas, and resources to the table.

The Consortium for School Networking's (CoSN) sample survey is a useful starting point for districts to identify local needs. Keep in mind that people living in digital deserts are unlikely to get announcements for local events related to digital equity issues. To reach offline and immigrant residents, translate the survey in dominant languages and distribute copies through local social service agencies and at community meetings.

Engage policymakers

After solidifying goals and strategies, Kobrin recommends school leaders meet with elected officials to help them to understand the school’s goals and how they factor into their platforms.

“It’s about understanding the school’s goals, and how it is an anchor for the larger community. How can our local government really concretely invest in schools and see what it’s providing not only to students, but also to community members?" says Kobrin.

Media Alliance provides the following ideas for engaging with policymakers on a local, state, or federal level.

  • Invite your elected officials to witness successful digital inclusion projects at your school.
  • Testify at a public hearing (school board, city council, state, federal).
  • Request a meeting or delegation visit with an elected official who has a track record of supporting social justice issues.
  • Attend or convene a town hall meeting with your elected officials. Ask teachers and students to testify about digital divide issues.
  • Apply for seats on task forces or advisory boards on digital inclusion efforts. If there’s no existing task force with community representation, create one or join an existing task forces on related issues and encourage them to take up digital inclusion.

Demonstrate community value

Kobrin says the key to getting buy-in is preemptively answering the “what’s in it for us” question for all stakeholders. Even corporations like Comcast, for example, have an interest in their community’s future workforce and client base.

“We are shaping students who might one day work at their company,” she says.

Philadelphia has seen several successful public–private partnerships, including Comcast’s Internet Essentials—the company’s low-cost service for low-income residents and the Philadelphia Housing Authority and T-Mobile partnership to provide 4,500 public housing families and students with free tablets and internet access.

Events like the Philly Technology Exposition and Competition (TEC), technology fairs, “techmobiles,” and other hands-on demonstrations increase demand for access and training and demonstrate the transformative impact of technology and training. Visit ISTE’s student technology showcase planning tips for more ideas.

State and federal advocacy

Signed into law in December 2015, ESSA moves critical federal funding back to the control of the states through block grants. Although this money is intended for shoring up educational technology, it is left to the states to decide how the grants are used.

Familiarize yourself with the opportunities available under ESSA to employ federal funding at both the state and district level to support classroom-based technology programming. Refer to ISTE’s public policy statement and advocacy plan template for guidance in developing long-term policy priorities and advocacy activities.

For those looking to influence education policy on a state and national, programs like the Educator Voice Fellowship, the Teaching Policy Fellowship, the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship, the U.S. Department of Education’s School Ambassador Fellowship, and E4E’s Teacher Leadership Program seek to amplify the voice of teachers, principals, and other school leaders in national dialogue.  

For more advocacy resources, check out ILA’s ESSA advocacy toolkit.

To explore the rest of this four-part series, visit the links below:

Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step One: Increasing Funding for Technology and Internet Access

Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step Two: Critically Frame 21st-Century Skills

Overcoming the Digital Divide, Step Three: Provide Resources


Alina O'Donnell
 is the editor of 
Literacy Daily.

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