Department of Education's Plan to Close the Three EdTech Divides

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, February 2, 2024

Weekly Digest

Department of Education's Plan to Close the Three EdTech Divides

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of January 29-February 2, 2024

Zoë Walker

In January 2024, the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology released the 2024 National Educational Technology Plan (NETP): A Call to Action for Closing the Digital Access, Design, and Use Divides. The NETP examines how technologies can raise the bar for all elementary and secondary students. The 2024 NETP frames three key divides limiting the transformational potential of educational technology to support teaching and learning: The Digital Use Divide, the Digital Design Divide, and the Digital Access Divide.


The National Educational Technology Plan was first published in accordance with the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, and has been periodically updated, most recently in 2016. Historically, the NETP has been a survey of the state of educational technology. The 2024 NETP attempts to chart a path for all schools, educators, and students to realize the potential of technology in supporting better “everywhere, all-the-time learning.”

The plan builds on the instructional core—“the relationship between the teacher, the student, and the content”— and breaks the Digital Divide into three categories:

  1. The Digital Use Divide: Inequitable implementation of instructional tasks supported by technology. On one side of this divide are students who are asked to actively use technology in their learning to analyze, build, produce, and create using digital tools, and, on the other, students encountering instructional tasks where they are asked to use technology for passive assignment completion. While this divide maps to the student corner of the instructional core, it also includes the instructional tasks that draw on content and are designed by teachers.
  2. The Digital Design Divide: Inequitable access to time and support of professional learning for all teachers, educators, and practitioners to build their professional capacity to design learning experiences for all students using educational technology (edtech). This divide maps to the teacher corner of the instructional core.
  3. The Digital Access Divide: Inequitable access to connectivity, devices, and digital content. Mapping to the content corner of the instructional core, the digital access divide also includes equitable accessibility and access to instruction in digital health, safety, and citizenship skills.

Digital Use Divide

A divide exists between those students who regularly encounter opportunities to leverage technology in active, critical, and creative ways and those whose experiences with technology in their learning are limited to more passive expectations of use.

The 2024 NETP provides a clear vision of what skills graduates should have and offers guidance and recommendations for operationalizing, evaluating, and systematizing the experiences necessary for all students to fulfill that vision. The recommendations include state-, school district-, and school building/administrator-level actions.

  1. Develop a “Profile of a Learner/Graduate” outlining cognitive, personal, and interpersonal competencies students should have when transitioning between grade levels and graduation. (States, Districts)
  2. Design and sustain systems, including needs assessments, technology plans, and evaluation processes supporting the development of competencies outlined in the “Profile of a Learner/Graduate” through the active use of technology to support learning. (States, Districts, Schools)
  3. Implement feedback mechanisms that empower students to become co-designers of learning experiences. (Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  4. Develop rubrics for digital resource and technology adoptions to ensure tools are accessible and integrated into the larger educational ecosystem, support Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, and can be customized in response to accommodation or modification needs of learners with disabilities. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  5. Review subject area curricula or program scopes and sequences to ensure that student learning experiences build age-appropriate digital literacy skills through active technology use for learning. (States, Districts)
  6. Build public-private partnerships with local businesses, higher education institutions, and nonprofit organizations to help students access edtech-enabled hands-on learning and work-based learning experiences. (States, Districts)
  7. Provide professional learning and technical assistance to district leaders, building-level administrators, and educators to support the use of evidence to inform edtech use. (States, Districts)
  8. Develop guidelines for emerging technologies that protect student data privacy and ensure alignment with shared educational vision and learning principles. (States, Districts)

Digital Design Divide

The 2024 NETP presents the digital design divide as a new consideration of the intersection of school culture, professional learning, and edtech. The design divide is between and within those systems that provide every educator the time and support they need to build their capacity with digital tools and those that do not. The design divide can limit equitable, active student use, even when all students can access the necessary technologies and content.

While socio-economic status has historically been a predictor of where schools and school systems may fall on either side of the use and access divides, the same is not true of design. Effective learning design using edtech can vary between neighboring classrooms within a school, schools within a district, and districts within a state. Not all teachers have the time, support, and capacities necessary to design instruction that incorporates active technology use. Closing the design requires allowing teachers the time and resources to actively design learning experiences for all students within a complex ecosystem of resources.

Closing this divide requires a clear vision, re-imagining systems of support, and bringing teachers to the table as co-designers of their professional learning. The guidance, recommendations, and examples that follow lay out a path to supporting teachers inundated by increasing demands on their time and unclear expectations as to how they utilize technology most effectively.

  1. Develop a “Portrait of an Educator” outlining the cognitive, personal, and interpersonal competencies educators should have to design learning experiences that help students develop the skills and attributes outlined in the profile of a graduate. (States, Districts)
  2. Design and sustain systems that support ongoing learning for new and veteran teachers and administrators, providing them with the time and space needed to design learning opportunities aligned with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  3. Implement feedback mechanisms that empower educators to become leaders and codesigners of professional learning experiences. (Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  4. Provide educators and administrators with professional learning that supports the development of digital literacy skills so that they can model these skills for students and the broader school community. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  5. Develop processes for evaluating the potential effectiveness of digital tools before purchase, including the use of research and evidence. (State, District, Building-Level Administrators)
  6. Foster an inclusive technology ecosystem that solicits input from diverse stakeholders to collaborate on decision-making for technology purchases, learning space design, and curriculum planning. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  7. Support and facilitate a systemic culture that builds trust and empowers educators to enhance and grow their professional practice to meet the needs of each student. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  8. Regularly solicit educator feedback and evaluate professional learning efforts to ensure alignment with the Portrait of an Educator. (District, Building-Level Administrators)

Digital Access Divide

The Digital Access Divide has historically been defined as providing equitable access to reliable, high-speed connectivity, hardware, and digital resources. While school systems have made great strides in closing the digital access divide, pernicious problems such as geographic barriers and local skill capacity require swift action at all levels in order to enable “everywhere all-the-time learning.”

This section outlines the recommendations and examples of learning environments designed (or re-designed) to close the digital access divide.

  1. Develop a “Portrait of a Learning Environment” to set expectations around habits and abilities no matter what the space. (States, District)
  2. Establish and maintain a cabinet-level edtech director to ensure the wise and effective spending of edtech funds. (States, Districts)
  3. Conduct regular needs assessments to ensure technology properly supports learning. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  4. Develop model processes and guidelines for device refresh policies based on local funding structures. (States, Districts)
  5. Leverage state purchasing power or regional buying consortia when purchasing edtech hardware, software, and services. (States, Districts)
  6. Develop learning technology plans in consultation with a broad group of stakeholders and according to established review cycles. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  7. Leverage public/private partnerships and community collaboration to bring broadband internet access to previously under-connected areas and ensure student access to “everywhere, all-the-time learning.” (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  8. Develop processes and structures that ensure the inclusion of accessibility as a component of procurement processes. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)
  9. Plan for and incorporate skills and expectations across all grade levels and subject areas for Digital Health, Safety, and Citizenship, and Media Literacy. (States, Districts, Building-Level Administrators)

The digital access divide is closely tied to digital equity, which aims to address and overcome this divide to ensure all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity necessary for full participation in the society and economy of the United States. The digital access divide often both mirrors and exacerbates existing educational inequalities.

A Note on Accessibility:

Accessibility refers to designing and developing educational materials, resources, and technologies in a way that enables equal access and participation for all students, including students with disabilities. It also involves creating inclusive learning environments that accommodate students with diverse needs and ensuring that all students can effectively participate in educational activities. Although technology can increase and enhance educational access for learners, it can also create barriers for learners with disabilities. Digital tools without sufficient accessibility features or assistive technology can exacerbate educational inequalities. For example, students with visual impairments who cannot modify the font size of a digital tool or who do not have the option to have the text read aloud to them might be unable to engage with the material. For learners to meaningfully participate in their education, they must be able to access and engage with their educational materials.

Digital Infrastructure

While 99.3 percent of schools in the US have reliable access to broadband, many learners, families/caregivers, and communities still lack access to reliable, high-speed broadband and technology tools. In the United States, more than 18 million households continue to face challenges gaining access to reliable, high-speed broadband. Overall, an estimated 15–16 million K-12 learners do not have sufficient access to reliable, high-speed broadband and technology tools for learning at home.

Case Study

In Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD)—a small, rural district located in the Central Valley of California—approximately 93 percent of the students identify as Hispanic/Latino and 42 percent as English Learners, 24 percent receive migrant services, and all students receive free meals. The district has committed to ensuring every learner has the best learning experience daily. Since 2007, this dedication has manifested in system-wide investments in time, resources, and technology to support high-quality, personalized learning in face-to-face and virtual learning environments.

In 2015, LUSD leaders recognized that providing and encouraging extended learning opportunities would require internet and device access outside of school. Given their rural location, they realized this would require a community solution. As a result, they launched a multi-year project to install nine distribution towers across the district to expand the district’s network. They then placed hundreds of hotspots in people’s homes to provide free, filtered coverage for all learners. In addition, the district installed cell towers to connect LTE-enabled devices. They collaborated with and engaged critical stakeholders throughout the process, gathering input from students, educators, school leaders, parents, neighbors, business owners, and the local government.

From this experience, LUSD leaders prioritized clarity, transparency, and communication. They developed “SMART” (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic/reasonable, and timely) objectives, shared them publicly, and referred to them regularly to establish a clear and common understanding. The District Director of Technology and 21st Century Learning consistently communicated with stakeholders and iteratively revised messaging to ensure they understood the project’s purpose and what would be necessary to ensure success. Most importantly, LUSD leadership ensured that every technology decision aligned with the district’s vision for learning—all learners can learn, acquire knowledge in different ways and timeframes, and have access to future-focused learning. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the Spring of 2020, LUSD knew that all their learners had a device, and almost 100 percent had sufficient internet access.2024 National Educational Technology Plan (NETP): A Call to Action for Closing the Digital Access, Design, and Use Divides


As has ever been true, educational technology holds vast potential to improve teaching and learning for every student and teacher in the United States. In recent years, driven by the emergency of a pandemic, schools have found themselves with more connectivity, devices, and digital resources than at any other moment in history.

The nation can close the digital access, design, and use divides. The NETP includes examples from every state in the country where schools, districts, and their partners are proving it’s possible. For this possibility to reach all students will require an understanding that the kinds of instructional tasks students need to prepare them for the world they will inherit cannot rely on content alone.

Zoë Walker joined the Benton Institute in 2023 as a Writing Associate. She works on the Headlines Newsletter and she is passionate about digital equity and inclusion. Zoë received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from North Carolina State University in 2022. 

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Benton Institute
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