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COMMENTARY: Education, Technology, and Digital Advancement

By Rey Ramsey, founder and CEO of Centri Tech

Education and technology are key ways in which we expand our horizons, explore our aspirations, and pursue our dreams. They are how we shape and spread our culture, communities, and our commonality. But the discussions we have about technology are too often about the bits, bytes and the gadgets and we forget about human aspirations, dreams, and making sure we have the means to manifest them.

At the intersection of education and technology we are witness in plain sight to the “homework gap,” where students who have home-based access to technology can do their schoolwork, while those who do not cannot. Why is home-based access important? Unlike getting online in a parking garage or a McDonald’s parking lot, the home is the only place for readily available, comfortable, and safe access. The home also represents something else: it’s an essential center of your culture, where you feel most apt to adopting new forms of technology and new forms of learning.

The COVID pandemic not only wrought the incredible toll of lost loved-ones, friends, and co-workers; it also laid bare how far behind we are as a technologically-capable society. Too many people were left to scramble to figure out how they were going to get access to the essentials of their lives—their jobs, health, and education. For students without access to readily available internet, dealing with the global pandemic exacerbated the education challenges many already faced. School districts helped—we saw them rush and struggle to get laptops and hotspots—but the questions need to be asked: Have the short-term patchwork solutions of communities and school systems actually filled the gaps that would ensure that all children have equal access to the tools of today’s tech-based education system? Does the teacher understand how to use technology as an instrument of teaching? Are we equipping kids with the digital literacy skills they need to understand the information and experiences coming back at them? Are we thinking about how using technology does or does not effectively cut across a variety of subject matter and different learning modalities?

For the last 20 years, we’ve been having discussions about the digital divide – about providing access to broadband. While this discourse was a start, we now need to abandon the term “digital divide” as it implies that the problem is simply one of access to tools.

It’s not.

Even if the public, private, and social sectors were to provide every American with access to connectivity and devices, we would still have an intolerable opportunity divide.

Technology cannot be our endgame. It is only through our intentional application of technology that we will address poverty and improve the lives of many. Our digital imperative is to move beyond the static vision of a divide to build a movement focused on digital advancement.

America now has the best opportunity ever to mobilize the resources – the financial and human capital – to address these ends. We are seeing enormous federal investment in areas hit hardest by the pandemic. Additionally, in response to America’s recent increased focus on addressing racial disparities, the private sector is committing billions of dollars to communities they have long overlooked. This is a moment to not just build physical infrastructure, but also to mobilize the creativity and capacity of tens of millions of marginalized Americans who want to help build a world where everyone can thrive.

Three Principles of Digital Advancement

As we think about comprehensive digital advancement, there are three important principles that must be our guide: imagination, innovation, and investment.

Imagination is the act of reconsidering what something can be. What if we chose to put people first and viewed low-income individuals as engaged consumers and producers, rather than passive clients and constituents existing only to receive pre-packaged services? What we call “broadband-adoption problems” would fade. Adoption is not a program; it is a mindset. If we want better and more meaningful utilization, we should think in terms of culture, comfort, convenience, and relevance. Imagine if the people at the center of adoption efforts were also part of the human capital that designs, delivers, and integrates new customer products and services to enhance their communities – and, better yet, receives economic benefits from that work. Imagine if we viewed affordable housing as more than just shelter or a human warehouse. When will we decide that affordable broadband and technology-enabled services are essential infrastructure in affordable housing?

Innovation is the development of new solutions. America must apply its full capacity of brainpower and technology to empower the poor and underserved. With the wide-ranging and reaching capabilities of technology and broadband, we have great power that goes underutilized for social purpose. An example: our population is growing older and seniors overwhelmingly want to age in their homes. Today, this can be achieved, alongside Improved quality of life and health outcomes, by bringing technologies into the home with culturally connected content and training. Medicaid ought to be a larger financing partner with financial institutions, municipalities, and state agencies as these solutions support the efficiency and effectiveness of that program.

Investment and capital expenditures are never value neutral. Investors have pioneered new ways of seeking returns that are socially beneficial, not just financial. The potential for expanding impact investment from niche to norm is enormous. In order to seize this potential, we need to repurpose existing funds, support new government policies and allocations, and create new investment models that internalize the value creation from converging various interests. Technology investment that is inclusive of human capital is a 21st century imperative.

The Urgency of Now

With all of this said, America has a choice to make. By design or by default, we will decide the contours of our society. Will we seek to expand opportunities for all of our citizens, or will we tolerate significant economic and quality-of-life disparities? We have the tools at our disposal, we just need the right mindset. If we achieve that, we can advance the human condition for all.

Ramsey is founder and CEO of Centri Tech.

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