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Friday Institute Partners with NCCU, IEI to Help NCDIT Develop Digital Equity Plan for North Carolina

In partnership with North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and the Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI), the Program Evaluation and Education Research (PEER) Group at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation will lead the effort to manage the development of a Digital Equity Asset Inventory for North Carolina, conduct a series of listening sessions across the state and facilitate the implementation and analysis of a statewide digital equity survey to help the North Carolina Department of Information Technology Division of Broadband and Digital Equity (NCDIT) develop a five-year digital equity plan.

“We are humbled to be working with so many leaders in the digital equity space to support the development of the state’s Digital Equity Plan,” said Erin Huggins, interim associate director of the PEER Group at the Friday Institute and principal investigator for this project. “This is not work that can be done by one organization alone and requires the collaboration and feedback of individuals and organizations from across the state. These collaborations and rigorous research efforts will directly impact residents across North Carolina for years to come, and we are so honored to help steer this important work.”

The need for this project stems from the Digital Equity Act of 2021, which aims to close the digital divide and provide digital equity and access for all people in the United States to “get an education, invest in skills training, apply for jobs, access unemployment benefits and more.” While not explicitly tied to education, this project does address the homework gap, a component of the digital divide that exists between students and families that have access to computers and the internet and those who don’t. 

According to the NCDIT Division of Broadband and Digital Equity, researchers estimate that as many as half a million North Carolina students do not have the access they need to high-speed internet, especially those in low-income and rural areas. The learning gap that some students experience is so great that they won’t catch up to their peers. The PEER Group has experience in advancing research, policies and programs designed to bridge the digital divide in North Carolina’s public schools and communities. 

The first phase of this 10-month, $440K project, entitled, “NC Digital Equity Plan: Asset Inventory, Statewide Survey, Listening Sessions, Digital Equity Plan Review,” consists of program planning, a content analysis and distribution of a statewide survey. A review of existing digital equity and inclusion plans will also be conducted by IEI to identify what efforts have already been established in communities. 

Beginning in March 2023, the PEER Group at the Friday Institute worked collaboratively with the Technology Infrastructure Lab at the Friday Institute and the NCDIT to develop and implement the statewide digital equity needs assessment survey. The survey will help to identify barriers to digital equity faced by “covered populations” and assess the availability and affordability of fixed and wireless broadband technology, accessible and inclusive public resources and services, digital literacy support, awareness and use of secure practices online, and the availability and affordability of devices and tech support. The Technology and Infrastructure Lab will summarize results and create a dashboard displaying those results. The PEER group will lead report writing.

Phase II of this project will focus on conducting a series of in-depth interviews based on the results of the content analysis and survey to determine which digital equity offerings are working well within the state as well as which are in need of improvement. They will also identify what gaps exist in the state. The project team will work with NCDIT to identify sites and community members and conduct a series of 20 listening sessions (16 in person and four virtual) across the state to capture a representative sample of the needs of North Carolina citizens related to digital equity and inclusion. Additionally, they will examine how barriers to digital equity affect economic and workforce development goals, plans and outcomes; educational outcomes; health outcomes; civic and social engagement; and delivery of other essential services. The listening sessions will also largely focus on how best to overcome the identified barriers to replicate and scale best practices.

NCDIT has also contracted with the PEER Group for Phase III, which will include the development of a searchable digital equity asset tool that allows the public to find resources and offerings in their communities. This is the first statewide effort to develop this tool. Additionally, a report will be provided summarizing the planning and implementation, key findings and recommendations for improving digital equity services in the state.