IMPACT
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How Can ‘Digital Inclusion’ Help Students Overcome The Equity Gap In U.S. Education?

Millions of students have unequal access to the great equalizer.

Many students across the United States face a technological disadvantage that threatens to undermine their educational and professional opportunities. Nearly 5 million students in K-12 public schools don’t have access to internet speeds required for effective digital learning, and many more lack the skills needed to be ready for tomorrow’s workforce. Our country’s students have unequal access to a great equalizer.

In 2020, that disadvantage — dubbed the “digital divide” — has become even more serious. For those with limited connectivity and technology, the digital divide can become a digital wall. As many school districts move to remote or hybrid learning models, students without reliable internet connection or lack necessary devices risk falling even further behind.

Fortunately, many companies, organizations and school districts were already working hard to reduce such disadvantages prior to COVID-19 by providing devices, data access, next-generation curriculum and professional development to students and schools in need.

Since 2014, the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools (VILS) program has bridged the divide between students and access to the tech they need. The program provides 264 Title 1 middle and high schools — where an average of 84 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch — with devices, data plans and expert support to ensure the technology is optimized.

VILS is part of Citizen Verizon, which is Verizon’s plan for economic, environmental and social advancement, aiming to provide 10 million youths with digital skills training by 2030. During the 2020-2021 school year, VILS has expanded to an additional 111 schools, including pilot programs in 10 high schools, a first for the program that previously focused only on middle schools. 

Before the pandemic hit, support from Verizon and others boosted underserved schools and created new opportunities for students. “VILS has changed the trajectory of our school and personally has changed my life, sending me on a professional path that I had never really anticipated before,” says Danielle McClary, a VIL coach at Chilhowee Middle School and Copper Basin High School in Benton, Tennessee. “When we became a VILS school, and literally overnight I went from virtually no students having technology in my classroom to literally everyone having technology, how could that not be a game-changer? It completely changed my approach to education because it gave me this whole new tool and a new experience that I had to work with.”

The strategy built by VILS schools for “normal times” turned out to be a technological necessity when the pandemic hit, because students were equipped with access to data connectivity and technology such as tablet computers and laptops — all provided under the VILS grant. Their teachers, already accustomed to a tech-forward curriculum, were better able to navigate the unforeseen challenges of distance learning in the time of COVID-19.

“Overwhelmingly, our teachers at Verizon Innovative Learning schools have said, ‘Thank God we’ve already been learning how to do this,’” says Sharon Laidlaw, a technology design coach at Austin Independent School District. “It was a very easy transition for them. But for a lot of our other teachers, this has been overwhelming.”  

That’s why Verizon is increasing its investment in education and doubling down on the commitment to disadvantaged and disconnected communities. Not only will students, teachers, and schools benefit immediately, but employers will have candidates who are digitally savvy and who have literally grown up with powerful tools, ready to solve complex problems and make a contribution.

When organizations focus on the right things, the possibilities are endless. The more we connect and support our students, the stronger our communities become.

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From Verizon:

Connectivity and technology should be available to all. By supporting digital inclusion initiatives, Verizon enables individuals and communities to develop the knowledge and skills to thrive in the digital age. Learn more at Verizon.com.

This article was paid for by Verizon and co-created by RYOT Studio. HuffPost editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.