Equity and Accessibility Considerations for Digital Learning - Digital Promise

Equity and Accessibility Considerations for Digital Learning

Ensure digital learning is equitable for all students by cultivating a culturally responsive learning environment with consideration for the neurodiversity of students and access to internet and devices.

Digital learning can help reduce inequities between students, but digital learning can also perpetuate and exacerbate existing inequities and make schooling more difficult for those who are already marginalized within schooling systems. Especially when digital learning occurs at home, there is a need to address the homework gap for students who do not have access to devices and reliable internet. Leaders should also be especially cognizant of how digital learning affects students with individualized education programs (IEPs) and 504 plans as well as English language learners (ELLs). 

Ensuring Access for Digital Learning

When digital learning occurs at home, schools, districts, and communities must ensure that every student has access to devices and reliable internet. There are many ways to do so, but district and school leaders should also do what they can to advocate for sustainable digital access for all families. This can be accomplished through: 

  • Providing digital learning devices and tools to all families and students who do not have access 
  • Supporting families to identify free or low-cost internet service
  • Partnering with local service providers to increase access for families in the providers’ communities 
Providing Special Education and 504 Services

Digital learning can be a powerful tool for helping to meet the needs of neurodiverse students, but the barriers to access that accompany digital learning for some learners, particularly those with IEPs or 504 plans, should be carefully considered. Schools, families, and communities must partner to engage students with disabilities in effective digital learning experiences. 

To meet the needs of students with disabilities, districts and schools should: 

  • Consider accessibility when selecting devices and digital learning resources in order to pick technologies with existing accessibility features 
  • Ensure all materials provided to students are accessible (e.g., offer subtitles, are screen reader friendly, use large font text or allow text size to be adjusted)
  • Ensure appropriate parental consent frameworks are in place with regard to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) if the school will be billing Medicaid for services
  • Work with special educators to determine how IEPs and 504 plans can be implemented remotely while ensuring students have access to the accommodations, scaffolds, and assistive technologies they need  
  • Update IEPs and 504 plans to reflect digital learning and new accommodations needed in digital learning environments
  • Partner with special educators to hold IEP and 504 meetings remotely, if necessary, to ensure continued services for students and the involvement of families in the IEP process 
  • Ensure all technology used to deliver services for students with disabilities, or to discuss student health and IEPs, conforms with HIPPA and FERPA
  • Ensure school counselors maintain the ability to provide counseling and psychological support to students
  • Provide training for families to support the needs of their children at home 
  • Communicate with families about learning outcomes, expectations, and the resources available to support students (keep in mind that parents have varying levels of availability and capacity) 
  • Utilize the Learner Variability Navigator to discover research-based strategies for supporting all learners
Providing English Language Services

To meet the needs of English language learners, districts and schools should: 

  • Utilize digital learning materials, tools, and resources that support language development (e.g., digital learning tools designed with or for translation, text to speech, speech to text, and audiovisual supports) 
  • Maintain the process for identifying and assessing ELLs to ensure all students receive the language support they need to complete grade-appropriate content 
  • Provide materials for students and families in multiple languages to ensure they are aware of updates about digital learning 
  • Make translations and interpretations resources available to students and families, free of charge 
Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education in Digital Learning

Race, social class, gender, language, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, ability, and other social forces can worsen inequalities faced by students, especially with regards to access to resources, opportunities, and power within the education system. These inequalities can be further exacerbated by the move to digital learning. Considerations should be made to acknowledge and overcome these inequalities and treat students’ sociocultural differences as assets for their learning. 

Many of the same considerations that promote culturally responsive and sustaining education apply to digital learning environments, but some additional considerations should be made for this specific environment. The digital learning leadership team as well as other leaders and teachers in the district or school should be educated about culturally responsive and sustaining education specifically in digital environments. 

As you plan for digital learning:          

  • Treat student differences as an asset to learning 
  • Build trusting relationships and nurture connections with students
  • Engage with families to better know what they need and how you can work toward their goals 
  • Minimize stress within learning environments, particularly if digital learning is happening at home
  • Develop learner-centered lessons with varied teaching methods and strategies
  • Provide opportunities for student-directed and redirected learning by giving students choice about topics, order to material covered, and student outputs and activities
  • Ask for student feedback on learning activities and identify the types of activities that they enjoy and learn from the best (e.g., projects, videos, games)
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage communally (this can be hard if digital learning occurs outside of a school building, but it can be as simple as having students use reaction features and emojis in the chat)
  • Incorporate students’ interests and background knowledge into lessons
  • Pay attention to factors within students’ lives that could limit access or time availability
  • Provide affirmation for the racial, cultural, and linguistic identities of students
  • Find ways to infuse arts, culture, and creativity into students’ learning
  • Choose materials that reflect a diversity of contributions to society, including preferencing the impacts and contributions of BIPOC
  • Research and discuss the inequities inherent in digital learning and provide students with opportunities to study and challenge these inequities
  • Pay attention to which students are taking up the most space within digital learning environments and how this relates to power within society 
  • Examine how student pacing differs when learning online and how to adjust workloads based on how long it takes students to complete assignments
  • Provide additional support for students who are more greatly affected by unjust systems and power inequity within society

Digital learning allows for and encourages flexibility. Rather than attempting to adapt traditional learning into the digital space, devise ways to disrupt inequalities in education through digital learning and create a more just educational system for students. This can include adapting with students rather than punishing students if they are unable to maintain traditional learning structures in a new environment. 

Finally, when digital learning is happening at home, reconsider who the teacher is and the learning that students are doing. Even when students are not in the school building, they are learning and have many teachers in their lives. Celebrate these other teachers and the lessons they impart, even if those lessons are not prescribed by the mandated curriculum. Think about how to use students’ lives and homes in their learning. 

Guiding Questions

  • Have you identified whether all students within your district or school have access to digital learning devices? If not all students have access, have you identified a way to ensure all students have access to a device? 
  • Have you determined whether all families within your district or school have access to reliable internet? If not, have you identified ways to provide internet access for all students, including making available access to community WiFi or helping families to identify and access free or low-cost internet service? 
  • Until all students have access to reliable internet and devices, how will you provide accommodations to provide equitable education access for all students? 
  • Are all digital learning materials scaffolded to provide all students full access to the learning materials without barriers? 
  • In the digital learning environment, are the needs of students with Individualized Education Programs and 504 plans met in accordance with their plans and specified accommodations? 
  • Do families have access to assistive technologies and do they know how to use them?
  • Do the devices used with the district or school and selected for purchase have accessibility features built into the technology design? 
  • How will your district or school provide services to English language learners (ELLs) to ensure language is not a barrier to grade-appropriate educational content? 
  • Do ELL students have access to appropriate translation services and support, and know how to use them? 
  • Have you coordinated with special educators and ELL coordinators within your district and school to ensure that the digital learning plan accommodates the needs of neurodiverse learners?
  • Have you provided training and resources for teachers to teach digitally in a culturally responsive and sustaining manner? 
  • Do digital learning curricula provide opportunities for student-directed learning decisions that give students choice and the opportunity to provide feedback? 
  • Do digital learning plans take into consideration the learning that takes place outside of the school building and how to incorporate that learning into the classroom? 
  • Do digital learning opportunities provide students with the opportunity to research and discuss inequities in digital learning and provide opportunities for the students to challenge these inequities? 
  • Is digital learning utilized in a way that is flexible and disrupts the inequalities of education, rather than maintaining and perpetuating traditional unjust structures in a new environment? 
Tools and Resources

Ensuring Digital Access for Digital Learning

Providing Special Education and 504 Services

Providing English Language Services

Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education in Digital Learning

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