Digital equity: How to make resources accessible for all K-12 learners

Chromebook monitoring keeps learners on task at Pasadena Unified School District

The pandemic transition to remote learning unearthed the inequality of access to technology across school districts and within households. But there is an important aspect to digital equity that often gets left by the wayside: the quality of the digital content.

Imagine a beautiful library building in an under-resourced neighborhood. Everyone is welcome to get a free library card, but there are only a couple of dusty old books on the shelves. This is what you get when you have access and connectivity but a lack of quality content. 

Assuring the quality of digital content is a great way for education leaders to help bridge the digital equity gap. Technology leaders can collaborate with others in their district to find ways to incorporate the highest quality resources available for all learning levels. An especially good resource is K-12 openly licensed educational content, which is free and becoming increasingly popular.

Yes, digital accessibility matters

When educational leaders think about digital equity, the first thing that comes to mind is usually access to devices and connectivity: computer hardware and WiFi. And it is true—the technical side of equity is important. No matter how great your digital content is, it doesn’t do students any good if they can’t access it. Devices and WiFi are an essential first step. But your whole digital learning program will fail if the content doesn’t engage and educate, no matter what devices you provide students.

Another aspect of accessibility is the ability of the user to find the content. Underserved students have less technology access to start. So they come in with fewer technical skills to sort through desktop icons and navigate different learning systems to find what they need. 

Making the content easy to access and providing the support that students need to raise their digital skills incrementally is what can help them catch up. It helps them not just on their reading and social studies, but on their digital literacy and fluency. The solution is to provide a single framework or hub for students to access their school content, with easy navigation and the ability to quickly access help when needed.

Without content that engages, teaches, allows for interaction and offers options for educators, all your connectivity may just as well be an old textbook. Plus, think about the money that districts spend to update textbooks, which are static resources. Digital content can be free or paid, but digital assets are more easily updated and integrated with other resources. Because digital sources vary, bringing the content together for students to easily find becomes a priority.

Sources for high-quality digital content

Including a range of different content types can help you engage all different learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic and read-and-write. Additionally, students with learning or other disabilities are better served by varying the format of content, all while keeping it accessible and in one place. Content may include text, images, video, audio, and games or interactives. 

Openly licensed educational resources are a growing and popular movement in K-12 education. These are resources that are shared with some version of a Creative Commons License to allow most uses and repurposing of content. This content is not only free, but flexible. The Department of Education even has an initiative called #GoOpen that encourages districts to begin the transition of their digital content towards openly licensed textbooks and other materials to increase digital equity. 

This is a movement that has been around for a number of years. It is really taking off after the sudden shift to distance learning due to the pandemic. The necessity for digital learning accelerated many teachers’ adoption of digital resources, and this can continue as a way to save districts money while still providing excellent educational content.

The internet contains many resources for free content. There are copyright restrictions that restrict use and copying of these resources. Just because it is free doesn’t mean it is flexible. Be sure to check whether it is able to be repurposed or integrated into other contexts. Regardless, there are valuable educational sources on the internet like National Geographic, PBS Kids, Smithsonian and other providers. 

Teachers may also create their own content for use digitally. For teachers who enjoy the process of creating text, video, interactive or other content, this can be shared with other district teachers or even on an internet platform for openly licensed materials.

Another source for educational content is paid service providers, with courses or resource libraries that can be used by school districts. Like the free resources, this content is restricted by copyright as to how, where and who can access the content. 

Executive function and navigating online content 

Executive function refers to the cognitive abilities that come together to help us complete a task. It can be broken down into flexible thinking, working memory and inhibitory control. Students with ADHD or learning disabilities often struggle with executive function, but so do many students in an online learning environment. A physical classroom with a teacher provides structure for kids. Working online, however, can feel overwhelmingly chaotic. This is especially true for learners with less computer literacy. 

If you think about it, any new or unfamiliar environment takes extra cognitive energy to navigate. This is especially true of new software or learning environments. When we ask students to navigate from one program to another and use new interfaces, it can make it impossible to learn the information in the lesson. The online experience should match learners’ executive functioning skills. Then they can concentrate on the lesson, rather than become frustrated finding the content and navigating through different systems.

One of the benefits of a learning system like Hāpara is that all the educational materials can live in one place. It has a simple structure and user-friendly interface that is closer to the way students more intuitively navigate online. Providing students a clear and easy interface can support their executive functioning skills so they can spend more of their time learning. Successful digital organization doesn’t come naturally to most students. A supportive learning environment with scaffolding built in can help them improve digital literacy while learning their course content.

Students also need training on how to use the technology. Even the simplest interface can be challenging and frustrating for some students. The best way to support cognitive function in online education is to give clear instruction on how to use the technology.

Slowly, students will gain more digital literacy to be able to complete more complex assignments. But even middle and high school students, to the surprise of their teachers, often struggle with staying organized and on task. Interface matters, and can in fact, be a support that helps learners develop the cognitive skills that will serve them well in future education or work.

Combining digital sources for a cohesive learning experience

As you consider upgrading and changing your district’s online content, think about areas where your current curriculum is weakest. Also look at parts that can use supplementation and can easily switch to a different content stream. 

Good places to start are:

  • textbooks that expire within the next 12 months
  • current curriculum resources that don’t meet state standards
  • committed teachers who can help create and curate content 

You want to move slowly and methodically, evaluating new content first. Then make sure your changes are integrated smoothly by teachers and learners before tackling another area.

There are many nonprofit and for-profit ventures who have created platforms to help districts find and evaluate openly licensed educational resources. They are a good place to start your search. Some prominent examples include OER Commons, Khan Academy, and openstax.org

You may find that a mixture of openly licensed, free and paid resources will meet your needs. Evaluate each resource on the credibility, usefulness, timeliness, accuracy, bias and engagement of the resource. Partner with teachers in the subject area to help evaluate and choose the best resources for students. Teacher-created resources can also be integrated, so tap your most creative and enthusiastic teachers to help you adapt resources in your district.

As you curate new content for your curriculum, consider how you will integrate all of the different resources into a learner and teacher user experience that is smooth, seamless and easy to navigate. 

One of the biggest frustrations for students in online learning is trying to get from one resource to another. Using a program that puts all of your content into one hub can foster a positive experience. Digital equity is best served on one plate, providing even the least tech-savvy learners with an experience that is educational and engaging. It also should meet them where they are in terms of executive function and familiarity with technology.

Digital resource equity 

“Openly licensed educational resources have enormous potential to increase access to high-quality education opportunities in the United States. Switching to openly licensed educational materials has enabled school districts to repurpose funding typically spent on textbooks for other pressing needs, such as investing in the transition to digital learning.”

The Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education

Filling your district’s content needs with high-quality free and openly licensed curriculum assets can bring more digital equity to the content. But the basics of connectivity and hardware should be in place to make sure students and teachers have access to all of the wonderful content you are helping to bring into the learning environment. Joining the movement for more openly licensed materials can save your district money that can then be used to upgrade your connectivity, platforms and devices, giving your district the best content and making education more equitable.

District Leader one page guide

Give learners access to the highest quality digital learning materials and resources.

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