For each of us, that day in March 2020 when we began sheltering in place to help stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus will live in infamy. For 463 million students around the world — 17 million in the U.S.— it is also the day when structured learning stopped. That is the estimated number of students who were unable to access classrooms remotely. Most of them reside in poor communities of color.

“We don’t even know where they [the students] are. They just stopped coming,” said Dr. Steve Perry, founder of Capital Preparatory Schools, located in New York’s Harlem, and in Hartford and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Perry is one of four experts in education and mentoring who took part in the HP PATH Summit, a series of listening sessions with thought leaders who are the boots on the ground tackling digital equity in education, healthcare and economic development.

 Dr. Steve Perry

Dr. Steve Perry

HP recently teamed up with SXSW to put on the virtual listening sessions that are meant to provide insights for HP as it aims to accelerate digital equity for 150 million people by 2030. The thought leaders schooled business and technology professionals, as well as their peers, about the impacts and the root causes that have exacerbated the digital divide affecting teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Perry was joined by DeAnna McLeary-Sherman, co-founder of True Star, a Chicago media company and digital agency that teaches urban youth how to create and market digital content that empowers them to forge their own path. Dr. Tamey Williams-Hill, Office of Equity project director for Austin Independent School District in Texas also joined the panel. The conversation was moderated by James Miles, executive director at MENTOR Washington.

More Than A Technical Error

It has been proven that students of color have experienced a disproportionate disruption in learning due to lack of devices and no or slow broadband access. But the connectivity challenges don’t end there.

“It’s not just access; it’s interaction,” said McLeary-Sherman. True Star teaches young people how to use technology to break the cycle of poverty. She said the missing analog or in-person connection is another reason why some students didn’t engage. “We have to make sure we have relationships.”

Dr. Perry said he initially was excited about the move to digital learning, believing it would bust down barriers to providing students with unique cultural competencies and learning experiences. “I thought my kids were going to be learning with kids in Istanbul and Bangladesh. It didn’t work that way.”

He described some educators as uncooperative when it comes to using technology to deliver instruction digitally. “I spent more time getting adults comfortable,” he said. “We move very slowly [in education], but technology has been moving super-fast. We’re expecting people who were not trained to use these devices as the primary strategy for delivering information.”

No surprise that the pivot to virtual was a mammoth task for school systems. Cybersecurity became an issue, too, with outlaws hacking into classrooms and posting sexually explicit and racist content. This was particularly troubling, Dr. Williams-Hill pointed out, with children as young as 4 years old in virtual learning environments. 

“In school systems, we’re not always the experts when it comes to tech. We’re already playing catch up by 8 to 10 years,” she said.

Sadly, these outcomes have fueled apathy toward school attendance and achieving educational milestones among some students. “Many young people have reported they learned more on TikTok than in the classroom,” Miles said. 

Dr. Perry, however, said he refuses to buy into what some refer to as “this immovable achievement gap as if it’s a fait accompli.”

“Whatever devices we use, it starts with a core belief that our kids can learn and that we can teach them,” said Dr. Perry, who shared that he was in remedial classes through his freshman year in high school. “Don’t just give us another device you’re not going to use to uplift us as a people.”

DeAnna McLeary-Sherman

DeAnna McLeary-Sherman

Building a Stronger Digital Future

Together, the expert panelists riffed off one another’s ideas to establish key takeaways and actionable steps to begin to remedy these undesirable outcomes. Here’s what they shared.

  • Flexible learning. Allow students to learn in their own time and space. “We need to reimagine education and job training in a way that creates a learning community where young people can learn anywhere anytime,” McLeary said.

She shared that most teachers need to learn how to digitize their lessons so students can go back and listen to recorded lessons and schedule time with an instructor. “It makes learning more accessible and accounts for the fact that young people are living with different circumstances,” she said.

  • Improve cybersecurity. “School systems need to go beyond drafting standards and address what type of systems are in place to detect and run interference to block malicious activity,” Dr. Williams-Hill said. Even better, tech companies should build cybersecurity systems into their devices, Dr. Perry suggested. “That way the security is in place to make sure yours and your child’s information is secure.” 
  • Reverse mentoring. Students spend hours looking at YouTube videos and reading books. “Honor what they already know,” said McLeary-Sherman. She shared that when her third grader’s teacher was having trouble using Google classroom, the 8-year-old showed her a tool to make her job easier. “We need to lean into change and into those who know more than we do.”

Dr. Williams-Hill emphasized the speed of change is a mitigating factor, pointing out that the technology she learned in school was outdated by the time she graduated. “The way I kept up with tech as a teacher was from the students in the classrooms because they were the digital natives at that point.” 

  • Re-imagine digital tools. Young people know their way around a smartphone. Don’t rule them out for learning purposes. “The same device they’re saying you can’t teach on, children are learning on and gaining greater connectivity,” Dr. Perry said. “The technology is here, y’all. It ain’t going nowhere. It’s only going further.”

To learn more about HP’s work in addressing digital equity, click here

This editorial was written by Shawn Taylor and brought to you in partnership with HP.