Bridging the Digital Divide: Ed Tech for Students in Underserved Communities

Remote learning shines a harsh light on the lack of technology in underserved areas. New initiatives seek to bridge the digital divide by supplying school districts with new laptops and Internet hotspots for students who don’t have sufficient resources at home. 


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Image credit: Operation Connectivity/Dallas Independent School District

A year ago, long before we were besieged by a global pandemic, the use of IoT technologies in the global education market was on a steady rise. The global market for IoT in education—including hardware, software, services, and management applications—was projected to grow from $4.8 billion in 2018 to $11.3 billion in 2023, with a compound annual growth rate of nearly 19 percent.

But that was before COVID-19 swept across the world and into our schools. When the virus outbreak first started and schools were quickly closed in spring 2020, solution integrators jumped in to help meet the high demand for connectivity solutions and Chromebooks

Now, as schools prepare to reopen this fall, educational institutions and local school districts are scrambling to create robust educational offerings to support remote student learning, which is fast-tracking the industry and e-learning growth. According to Renub Research, the U.S. e-learning market is “on fire” and is projected to reach $105.2 billion by 2026. That includes e-learning for K-12, higher education, enterprise, and corporate environments combined.

The projected growth isn’t a surprise. According to Forbes, within weeks of the initial lockdown, Internet use surged 50-70 percent, and streaming increased at least 12 percent. But that only works in areas with solid Internet access, and many school districts face an uphill battle outfitting students for remote learning. While the FCC estimates that  21 million Americans lack broadband Internet access, the new reports are estimating that the number could be closer to 42 million

Going the Distance in Texas: Operation Connectivity

To help address the digital divide, school districts all around the country are working with technology providers to equip each student with a device and stable internet connection for the upcoming school year. Texas, one of the worst states for ubiquitous Internet access, is getting some much needed help this year through Operation Connectivity. 

Launched by the Dallas Innovation Alliance (DIA) and the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) with help from the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the initiative will provide more than one million laptops and notebook devices and nearly half a million Internet hotspots to students who lack those resources at home. The TEA is using $200 million from the CARES Act to purchase the computing equipment. 

Devices were purchased in bulk, thanks to Intel and Microsoft, who intervened to secure discounted rates from Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Apple. Wireless providers T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon have all stepped in to provide hotspots and unlimited data plans. School districts in Austin, Dallas, Fort Bend, and Houston are among those benefiting from the Operation Connectivity initiative. 

Adding Connections in the Town: #OaklandUndivided

A similar program has taken root in Oakland, CA. Approximately half of the 50,000 students enrolled in the Oakland Unified School District are under-connected or disconnected from technology at home, denying them access from learning opportunities. To close this digital divide, the #OaklandUndivided campaign has surfaced, spearheaded by Mayor Libby Schaaf’s Office of Education, the Oakland Public Education Fund, the Oakland Unified School District, and Tech Exchange. Donors include Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, HP Enterprises, Verizon, Salesforce, and the Intel Foundation. 

students and parents getting access to laptops and Internet

Image credit: Oakland Public Education Fund

The mission of this initiative is to ensure every Oakland public school student has access to a computer, Internet connection, and tech support in their home for the upcoming school year. #OaklandUndivided has raised $13 million to provide 25,000 laptops and Internet hotspots to its students and families. In addition, the district has distributed its supply of Chromebooks to students and increased WiFi strength at select schools, essentially turning schools into drive-up hotspots for students to download or submit assignments. 

A Helping Hand

Not all devices have come through these initiatives. In some cases, it’s pure generosity. Some NBA players and teams have reached out as well. Houston Rockets star Russell Westbrook donated 650 laptops to needy students in his hometown. The Golden State Warriors donated $250,000 to the Oakland and San Francisco Unified School Districts to purchase hundreds of devices for students in the San Francisco Bay area. 

In Philadelphia, the 76ers donated funds to purchase 10,000 Chromebooks when it came to light that about half the students in grades 3-12 didn’t have access to a computer at home. With that kind of donation, these students can cheer for their hometown teams even if they don’t see them on the court.

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