What Is Digital Equity?
What advantages does a child whose family owns a personal computer have over a child who doesn’t have computer access? What benefits does a fast internet connection have on a person’s education, work opportunities, income, and societal standing?
Digital equity is a crucial concept because it focuses on enabling every person to participate in and access the benefits of the digital world.
In this article, learn about digital equity, the origins of the concept, how the thinking about it has evolved, and how groups are working to achieve it in the future.
Key Aspects of Digital Equity
Digital equity is the concept that every person should have equal access to digital technologies, including internet access. The concept aims to address the divide in access to digital infrastructure that gives some people advantages over others in education, work, and society. Digital equity, or digital inclusion, stresses that all people should be able to easily use modern information technology (IT) devices and services.
Digital equity came into sharp focus when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many schools and workplaces to switch to remote settings. Suddenly, environmental factors made internet access a necessity and made clear how many people face disadvantages because they don’t have the same access to technology.
Research illustrates the impacts of the digital divide. According to a study in Economic Inquiry, teenagers who have access to home computers are 6 to 8 percent more likely to graduate from high school than teenagers who don’t. In addition, students with home internet access earned $2 million more over their lifetimes than students without it.
Multiple Issues Involved in Digital Equity
From banking, healthcare, and insurance to job searching and remote work, digital infrastructure underlies many crucial parts of the modern world.
However, many people and communities cannot fully participate because they lack access to digital resources—broadband internet, modern computers, digital skills, an understanding of online privacy, and others. According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of adults making less than $30,000 per year don’t own a smartphone and 43 percent don’t have home broadband services.
Digital inclusion is a complex issue involving multiple aspects, including the following:
- Personal computing devices: The availability of technology is a key part of digital equity. Without convenient access to computers, individuals already face greater challenges than those who own personal computers. However, simply owning a device is not enough to ensure digital equity.
- Reliable internet access at broadband speeds: Access to the internet is a basic human right according to the United Nations. Digital equity requires internet access to be reliable and fast enough to enable people to perform common tasks. In addition to speed, internet access must also be available on a personal device and a secure network.
- Affordability: Technology and its different components—devices, software, and internet access—must be affordable to every person to ensure digital equity.
- Online privacy: Privacy and security are also key components of digital equity. Full participation in a person’s economy and government involves being able to research, discuss, and vote freely using digital infrastructure.
- Learning and digital proficiency: Equal access to digital infrastructure does not create digital equity if those with access aren’t proficient in using it. Digital equity requires digital literacy, which enables people to use technology effectively.
- Teacher proficiency and technology-driven learning: In an educational setting, it is also important that teachers are qualified to create lesson plans that involve technology and teach students how to use it in creative and innovative ways. Building out infrastructure also involves training educators on how to use it.
Why Digital Equity Is Important
Affordable access to fast digital infrastructure has compounding benefits for those who have it. For example, internet access provides opportunities to find, purchase, and use more affordable or more efficient tools.
If a person can reduce ongoing costs by shopping for and purchasing a better alternative online, they could reinvest those savings into their education or personal enterprise. Over time, this benefit compounds and can result in financial and efficiency gains that may be out of reach for someone without equal access to technology.
Similarly, early access to technology builds a foundation of knowledge that is necessary to keep up with rapidly advancing technology. When children lack access to personal computers or fast internet, they may fall behind their classmates in terms of digital literacy. As technology advances even more quickly, it can become difficult to catch up.
Economic Impact of Digital Equity
In addition to helping individuals, the push for digital equity could bring significant economic benefits.
Between 2000 and 2006, the gross domestic product (GDP) of low- and middle-income countries increased by about 1.38 percent for every 10 percent increase in broadband access, according to the World Bank. Even high-income countries saw growth of 1.21 percent for every 10 percent increase in broadband penetration.
The same research also found that broadband has a greater impact on GDP than fixed and mobile telephone infrastructure.
Who Digital Equity Affects
Without digital access, some people—often people who are already disadvantaged—miss out on opportunities to learn, socialize, and earn an income.
According to data from the 2019 American Community Survey, over fourteen million households in the US don’t have computers and over nineteen million US households don’t have high-speed internet connections. Meanwhile, approximately one-third of Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native households lack internet access.
In addition, the proportion of women who use the internet is 12 percent lower than that of men, according to the United Nations. Between 2013 and 2017, this digital divide widened in the least developed countries.
Evolution of Digital Equity in Recent Years
According to IEEE’s International Network Generations Roadmap, some of the most significant challenges to digital equity today are:
- A lack of digital knowledge
- Ease of user authentication and secured access, such as single sign-on systems
- Ease of use in terms of human-computer interaction
- Affordability of smartphones, tablets, and other smart devices
- Lack of content in local languages
Digital Equity Legislation in the US
In 2019, US Senator Patty Murray first proposed the Digital Equity Act. Reintroduced two years later, the 2021 Digital Equity Act aims to address this complex problem by providing digital skills education to low-income populations, making social services more accessible online, and achieving more accurate measurements of broadband access, especially in rural communities.
The 2021 Digital Equity Act also provides funding for the creation of digital equity plans at the state level and the implementation of digital inclusion projects at the community level. The Act’s proposals crucially go beyond base infrastructure to promote education and digital literacy.
Evolving Design Trends Deepen the Digital Divide
Some design trends and technological advancements deepen the digital divide instead of promoting digital equity.
For example, higher resolution screens have led some software makers and designers to adopt smaller, thinner, and lower-contrast text and user interface elements. These design trends put older users and users with vision challenges at a disadvantage.
Smaller computing devices also pose challenges for users with physical disabilities. Even larger smartphones with touchscreens present relatively small touch targets that some people may not be able to hit easily.
In addition to the digital equity issues of accessing computers and internet connectivity, people with disabilities face additional challenges. The digital divide can be even wider for students with disabilities. According to Digital Promise, schools should consider several factors when planning digital learning, including:
- Offering electronic materials that support text resizing, screen readers, and other accessibility features.
- Providing psychological support to students.
- Updating individualized education programs to reflect the differences in remote learning.
Reasons Why Digital Equity Is More Important Than Ever
Digital equity is a necessity in the twenty-first century. As more and more essential services and activities move at least some of their presence online, digital equity takes on even more importance.
In education, digital equity gives some students advantages over others simply because they have access to faster internet connections or more modern computing devices for distance learning. In addition, the move to digital and remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other circumstances disadvantages those who don’t have personal computers, fast internet speeds, or other components of technology access. This is called the “homework gap”.
According to Lamar University, students in economically depressed and rural communities become left behind when schooling moved online. Since access to educational materials requires access to technology where in-person schooling is limited, digital equity is directly tied to equal education.
In people’s careers, access to technology can open up more opportunities for employment through remote work or in hybrid offices. Digital inequality favors those with the financial capacity to afford better access to technology, widening existing achievement gaps.
From personal finance and paying bills to investing and saving for retirement, the financial industry has widely adopted digital tools and services. Some banks exist that don’t have any physical branches. Investors with internet access can view more up-to-date research and make faster trades than those without. The digital divide has huge implications for people’s financial lives.
Telehealth is one example of an essential service that people without computer and internet access may struggle to access. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to stay at home and overwhelmed hospitals and medical facilities, telehealth and digital healthcare became more important than ever
Advancement of Technology
Not only is technology advancing further every year, but it’s also advancing more quickly. Any digital disadvantage a person faces today becomes exacerbated over time at a greater and greater pace.
Children who don’t begin with equal access to digital infrastructure already face a catching-up challenge, but that challenge becomes more difficult every time the pace of innovation outstrips their access to the new technologies. Efforts to create digital equity aim to prevent this widening of the digital divide.
Efforts to Improve Digital Equity
Efforts to achieve digital equity will need to focus on lowering the costs of digital infrastructure and building scalable solutions. For example, schools continue working to provide broadband access. In some cases, schools are also providing each student with a personal computing device.
In 2020, the FCC announced the “Keep Americans Connected Pledge,” which urges companies to offer low-cost or free internet service to underprivileged families. Signees pledged to continue to offer service despite a residential customer’s inability to pay his or her bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This pledge was meant to offer temporary relief and to avoid deepening the digital divide during the volatile circumstances that surrounded the COVID-19 pandemic. It did not contain permanent provisions or include preventive measures for pushing for digital equity.
In 2021, the FCC released a new map of broadband coverage in the US. The FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force produced the map as part of the 2020 Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, which is part of the US government’s efforts to improve broadband availability in rural areas.
Future Importance of Digital Equity
Today, many facets of daily life—work, education, commerce, healthcare, and more—either take place online or have online components. As technology advances and plays an even more central role in the world, access to it will be even more valuable.
The question, What is digital equity? involves considering many issues of inequality and how they may be mirrored or exacerbated by the technology divide. Nevertheless, it is an important question in ensuring equal access to digital tools, remote learning, and other services for rural areas and other underserved communities.
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