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Say What? Strategies to Address the Digital Divide in Education

Unless you have not been paying attention, the Covid-19 Pandemic has had an earth shaking impact on everybody over the past year.  One of the impacts that this has generated is to highlight the existence of a “digital divide” within the educational setting.  It is important to recognize that the pandemic did not create this “digital divide;” rather, it simply highlighted its existence.   In a way, this circumstance has given parents a better opportunity to address “digital divide” issues in the education than would have existed without the pandemic.

There are a number of concepts that need to be understood when addressing the “digital divide” in the educational setting.  First, it is important to recognize that the “digital divide” describes the consequence, and not the cause.  Second, the digital divide is not simply a “disability” issue, and exists over a broad spectrum of individuals, but it can have a more significant impact on individuals because of a disability.  Finally, there is no monolithic solution to the “digital divide,” so the importance of flexibility in resolution dovetails nicely with the individualized solutions inherent in the concept of delivery of a free appropriate public education provided to students with disabilities.

When we use the term “digital divide” we are describing an end result where certain students do not have the same capacity to use electronic resources as their peers.  That single term may be founded on multiple problems, any one of which can have a negative impact on a student and create a “digital divide.”  Some of the difficulties are obvious: a student may not have any computer or may entirely lack internet service.  Others can be less obvious: the student may have a computer, but has to share that computer with other members of the household, who may or may not themselves be students; they may have internet service, but it may be subject to periodic outages or be insufficiently powerful for all the entities on the service.  Other impairments may be so insidious that people may not be aware until the issue is staring them in the face: A computer program may be unintelligible to an individual because the teacher does not fully understand it, or is ineffective in communicating about the program, or because the student’s disability itself impairs their capacity to understand the program.  This means, when attempting to address the “digital divide” for IEP/504 purposes, it is important that the actual components be identified so that everybody in the Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting understands what is meant by addressing the digital divide for the student.

The fact that there is no “one solution” to the digital divide really means that everybody needs to be open to alternatives.  From the standpoint of individuals with IEPs/504 Plans, this should be used to encourage discourse between the school and the parents to address the “digital divide.”  This means being open to trying resolutions more than once, avoiding the “one and done” tendency in educational settings, while being willing to explore additional resolutions.  Because the “digital divide” has more than one source, it may be that first efforts may only identify additional barriers and the parties need to be aware of that possibility, and open to exploring next steps to make education truly accessible.

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