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Why this is a critical moment for education access

The pandemic exposed major gaps in the digital divide. Now is the time to fix them.

Why this is a critical moment for education access

Now that we’re nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect. Looking back at those initial months, on top of the uncertainty and severity of the crisis taking place, the day-to-day routines of employees and students came to a screeching halt. Most schools have returned to in-person instruction, and some office workers are doing the same. But during those first months of 2020, the world’s students and workforce were left glued to video calls and doing their best to replicate or augment what had largely taken place in person until it all paused.

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It became clear that technology—like opportunity—isn’t an equally distributed resource. Companies ensured their workforces had the equipment and tools they needed to keep business going. However, for students, families, and teachers, it was mostly on them—and the disparity in access to laptops and high-speed internet made remote learning nearly impossible for some.

“We as a society have to close the digital divide,” David Christopher, executive vice president of partnerships and 5G ecosystem development at AT&T, said during a recent panel at this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival. “We have to solve the access problem so that we can get the solutions [to the] students that need it most. ”

Underserved families bear the brunt of that access gap, with a recent report finding that nearly 10% of America’s poorest children have no access to the internet. Ways to bridge that gap are emerging, though. As Christopher discussed the topic with futurist Chris Riddell and Ariam Mogos, an emerging tech and education lead at Stanford’s Institute of Design, real change was put into full view. It’s imperative that underserved areas have the same internet access as major urban areas.

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Once the foundation is laid, the possibilities of how students learn—and instructors can teach—will be transformed. The future of education is about democratizing knowledge for everyone.

NEVER GOING BACK AGAIN 

One thing all three panelists agreed on is that the past 18 months have irrevocably transformed how education happens, a trend that will continue. “We have to use this as an opportunity to say, ‘Where do we want to go from here?’ ” Riddell said. Building a better educational future, he added, will require a mesh of technology and upskilling, including setting up teachers and students for success based on their needs and situations. “This is a much broader conversation as well, around how we’re equipping our children, our teachers, with the right technology. We’re at the best place we’ve ever been to do that.”

The growth of immersive learning using AR/VR also promises to level the playing field for a global cohort of students, so that learning isn’t limited by what you can access in your school or community. Call it the metaverse approach to education.

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For Mogos, whose work spans the intersection of education and technology, one of the promises of 5G and the eventual metaverse—a hyper-connected physical-meets-digital world that is being developed—is that they provide an immersive alternative to ineffective remote learning. By taking today’s technology into view and also thinking ahead to the future through the metaverse, Mogos is convinced these types of tech “can push us in the direction of more project-based, problem-based experiential learning and away from remote learning.”

This is especially vital in regions where access to supplies and technology have a detrimental impact on educational outcomes. “Where schools are very under equipped—where they don’t have science labs, and equipment can be very costly—emerging technologies and [affordable] connectivity can be a viable, quick, and effective alternative to brick-and-mortar solutions,” Mogos said.

THINKING BIGGER

Of course, that divide isn’t closing itself, which is why connectivity campaigns like those from AT&T are essential in opening new avenues of digital education. AT&T’s Christopher pointed out how this requires “ubiquitous” networks, adding that providing equal access to those networks is a massive opportunity. “We’ve talked about providing new ways of learning and new instructional strategies for both teachers and learners,” he said. “It’s an exciting time, and I think it will completely reinvent how students learn and grow.”

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To help bolster further progress on this front, AT&T has made a commitment to invest $2 billion during the next three years to address the digital divide. “Those things are critical to make our country more competitive,” Christopher added. “And to do that, we’ve got to make education the foundation of what we focus on as a society and as a country.”

To watch the full panel, please click below.

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