Pushing the Envelope to Ensure Equitable Digital Access for Students

15 June 2023 | By viviedu

Juliana Finegan, host of the“Educator Pineapple Podcast,” invited Kristina Ishmael, Deputy Director of the Office of Ed Tech, for a lively conversation about digital equity. Ishmael shared her classroom experience and mission for developing national edtech policy that pushes the envelope around digital equity and opportunity at scale. 

Kristina Ishmael was once coined the “Kevin Bacon of Education.” She brushed off the nickname at first, then doubled down. 

“I am a connector and collector of people,” explained Ishmael, adding that she now takes pride in her reputation for bridging connections in the classroom, within the state, and at the federal level. “That is definitely the superpower I bring to all of my work.” 

Today, her influence is reflected in her role as the Deputy Director of the Office of Ed Tech, where she executes the office’s mission of developing national edtech policy that “enables learning everywhere, all-the-time learning.” The office exists under the Department of Education.  

In the policy world, Ishmael credits her background as a practitioner (she started her career as a preschool teacher in Omaha) for her success in pushing edtech policies forward. When she first took on landed in the role in 20121, her primary focus was promoting digital equity and opportunity as a broader initiative, something that gained urgency with the ramp-up to virtual learning during the pandemic. 

In its wake, Ishamel estimates roughly 95 percent of schools now offer 1:1 devices to facilitate learning.  

A survey from EdWeek Research Center revealed nearly 90 percent of educators reported having at least one device for every middle and high schooler by March of 2021, and an additional 84 percent said the same was true for elementary school students. In the same survey, nearly half of teachers, principals, and district leaders said the expanded use of school-issued digital devices significantly “changed teaching and learning in their schools.” 

These sweeping educational changes haven’t come without their challenges, however. Educators and districts alike face mounting pressures in the learning environment, including navigating the complexities of digital transformation, stemming the impending teacher shortage, and strengthening whole-child support for the next generation of learners — all at once.  

Advances in educational technology have offered educators new opportunities to create meaningful, personalized learning experiences. Not only can technology build teacher capacity and confidence to address instructional challenges, but it can also give teachers the freedom to create interactive, multimodal lessons, thus fueling students’ ability to build critical skills around their own self-directed learning. 

But none of this can happen without strategic alignment, Ishmael said. Within the framework of digital equity and opportunity, her team works to tackle three primary priorities: Digital inclusion, the ecosystems, and emerging trends and technologies. 

An interesting note: The bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which delivered $65 billion to ensure Americans have reliable high-speed internet, actually codified in law the definition of digital equity and digital inclusion for the very first time. 

“It’s very important because we still have a lot of folks who are not connected, especially when it comes to home access,” Ishmael said. “We got hot spots out, we got devices out in the early part of the pandemic, but that was just the first step. We now need to make sure that not only our learners but our families and communities can get on these devices and navigate things.” 

Anything that contributes to living in a digital society, she added. Despite the rise of tech, Ishmael said crafting digital policies shouldn’t ignore the humans they impact. 

Both educators, educational leaders, families, and communities should all play a role in how policies are implemented in the real world. 

“We would not have been able to do what we’ve done over the past three years without them coming along beside us and being able to help us with that continuity of learning,”  Ishmael said. 

Promoting digital policies also requires program-wide technology adoption and training for teachers, who can then take their learnings into the classroom. It also takes the buy-in of the “bully pulpit,” says Ishmael, including the convening power of the Office of Ed Tech and the Administration. 

“So, I can put out an email invitation to educators and edtech companies and they’re going to want to come, so we can bring them together to envision and think about what’s coming and what’s possible, as well as designing for responsible use,” grounded in evidence and learning theory. 

In 2021, the agency launched Digital Equity Education Roundtables (D.E.E.R) to identify high-risk populations, such as urban and rural students who had been “digitally redlined,” to solve barriers around technology adoption and access.   

In addition to continuing her work to promote digital equity, Ishmael said the agency has an eye on the horizon. 

Today, early conversations about the impact of artificial intelligence and learning are also taking root. Tackling issues around safety, security, responsible use, and design, while also weighing the opportunities and risks within the learning environment, has become an emerging priority. The agency is currently working on delivering an initial report to shape future AI edtech policies.

“We’re trying to think about how technology interacts with our everyday lives,” Ishmael said. “In the end, we have to remember our why and who we’re here to serve. We’re here to serve our learners and our educators. We always want to get better.” 

Listen to the full episode of the “Educator Pineapple Podcast” featuring Kristina Ishmael, here

A new era of education is here. 
Want to learn more about how today’s educators are leveraging educational technology to design flexible, personalized learning experiences for all learners? Download the latest guide from Vivi: “Moving Away from the Front of Class.”