In this Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 file photo, Kelly Mack works on her laptop to teach remotely from her early 1940s vintage camper/trailer in her backyard at home in Evanston, Ill. Credit: Nam Y. Huh / AP

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Alan Berry is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maine and the Maine state chapter leader for Media Literacy Now. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Last month, Maine Sen. Angus King introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at addressing the sustained digital divide. The Digital Equity Act would establish two Federal grant programs that empower states and local communities to close the digital divide and promote digital equity.

The National Digital Equity Center, a digital literacy leader in Maine, advocates for digital equity as “necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.”

Investments in broadband are sorely needed, especially in rural Maine as King discussed in a March BDN column. Improvements in technology and online accessibility for people with disabilities are also necessary, as is more investment in and expansion of digital skills training for underserved communities. These kinds of investments, which would be supported through the Digital Equity Act, are a long time coming and will go a long way toward closing the digital divide, but they don’t go far enough towards achieving digital equity.

The digital divide conversation began in the late 1990s, when home computers became more affordable and the Internet more accessible — and yet millions of American families were being left behind. It was no surprise then that the folks left behind reflected historical inequalities: communities of color, low-income urban and rural families, older adults and people with disabilities.

While digital devices are now ubiquitous and daily use of the Internet nearly unavoidable, the same inequalities persist and have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But what do we mean when we talk about the digital divide in 2021? And how should we address it?

Originally the “divide” focused on who had access and who didn’t. There was an assumption that access to computers and the Internet alone would be some great social and economic leveller. As those socio-economic gaps continued to increase, despite an increase in both access and use, the conversation shifted to a second-level digital divide concerned with quality of access and the acquisition of digital skills. After all, it’s far more difficult to apply for college or employment on a smartphone than on a laptop or to do homework during short trips to the library. It’s even more difficult when you don’t have the skills to efficiently use a computer or effectively navigate the Internet.

Access and skills are only the first steps in promoting digital equity, however. As more people across the globe gain the access and skills necessary to participate online — there are over 3.5 billion Internet users globally — the conversation is now shifting to include a third-level digital divide, focused on the disparities in material benefits and positive outcomes of using digital media technologies. Researchers have found that equal access and equal skills do not always result in equal benefits or outcomes. Inequalities that exist offline are often reinforced and amplified online.

Again, these inequalities have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including through susceptibility to health misinformation, civic participation, quality of online learning, or in the ways we use digital media technologies to connect with others.

If we want to work towards true digital equity, then we must also invest in critically- and civically-oriented media literacy education for all citizens. Young people and adults alike must have the opportunity to engage in learning opportunities that build on access and skills to address these deep inequalities, foster healthy digital relationships, and provide the tools and strategies to participate purposefully and responsibly in online communities, while also using digital media technologies to work towards equality in all forms of social, cultural, economic, and civic life.

The Digital Equity Act is a great and necessary step toward closing the digital divide. If we are to leverage those investments toward achieving digital equity, however, we need to also invest in formal and informal media literacy learning opportunities for adults and young people within our communities that build on access and skills.