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Closing the digital divide: equity in education

February 22, 2021By

25, 000. That’s the number of students in the Oakland Unified School District that didn’t have access to the necessary technology for in-home learning when schools shut down in the wake of the pandemic.

With students in limbo, Tech Exchange, a nonprofit that provides technical hardware and support to area families, jumped in.

“We’ve been quietly doing this work for 25 years and we knew that as soon as shelter-in-place hit, that this was a huge community issue,” says Seth Hubbert, Executive Director with the organization. “We knew that approximately 50% of families at home didn’t have what they needed to do those things (being fully functional online), so we knew our mission was going to be in the spotlight in a way that it had never been before.”

This was in the spring. With the new school year beginning in mid-August, Tech Exchange had mere months to get the district students up and running on technology at home.

Estimated duration of project: 10 weeks

Actual duration of project: 3.5 weeks

Image: Tech Exchange
Tech Exchange staff member leaning over a table outside while a family with masks on sign for a borrowed laptop.

#OaklandUndivided = equity in education

The digital divide manifests in more ways than one. As Seth explains, “There’s both a literal gap of technology between the haves and have nots, but there’s also the awareness gap about the digital divide.” It’s the idea that the many of us who feel inundated with technology lack the insight to know that not everyone else has access to the same resources. “People think, ‘We have an abundance of technology in our society. Why does this problem exist?’” says Seth.

To fix the problem and close the digital divide, Tech Exchange in partnership with the Oakland Unified School District, the Oakland Public Education Fund, Mayor Libby Schaaf and Oakland Promise, approached Traction on Demand with a time-sensitive project that was large in scope. #OaklandUndivided would be Tech Exchange’s biggest project to date: coordinating the eligibility of thousands of families to receive computers and wireless hotspots, and the distribution of that technology.

Number of languages supported by the platform: 6

English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Khmer

Closing the digital divide

The number of stakeholders, translation into different languages, management of inventory in 16,000 square feet of warehouse space, distribution of thousands of pieces of hardware… it could have become a logistical nightmare. But it didn’t. The organizations mobilized quickly thanks to meticulously planning and decisive decision-making. Plus, everyone involved knew 25,000 kids were depending on them. There was no time to waste.

Shared values of the #OaklandUndivided stakeholders:

transparency/visibility, accuracy, efficiency, integrity, equity

Image: Tech Exchange
Two people with masks on are pushing/pulling a dolly of boxes in a warehouse.

The technical solutions

According to Will Buchanan, Program Manager at Traction on Demand, the solutions team created Tech Check, a survey that decides the eligibility of households signing up for tech support. It’s a dynamic multi-page survey form in six languages that auto-creates and displays Salesforce records. It also sends a variety of templated messages by SMS and email in those languages. The foundational Salesforce data model was built in such a way as to be fully scalable for future releases.

Aside from the logistics of getting this platform up and running, there was the user adoption aspect to consider. The families receiving the support were not necessarily going to be comfortable with tech, so the survey had to be easy to complete and submit. Further to this, online requests for staff and technical support were configured in a way that logging in would not be necessary. This would minimize the effort needed from the user to access the platform.

Technical solutions implemented for the #OaklandUndivided platform:

Equity in education for all children

Every parent wants to be able to provide for their child, especially when it comes to education. But individual circumstances, especially in light of the pandemic, can make it very difficult for many families. “We have such privileged jobs because we get to give a tangible gift,” says Seth. “We are giving hot spots and laptops and Chromebooks, so there’s this high level of gratitude from these families that are getting these resources... but where Tech Exchange shines is having relationships with community members.”

In having those relationships, Tech Exchange is promoting equity in education, something that we must all become aware of if we’re going to be part of the solution in closing the digital divide. And closing this divide is not just about handing out hardware, it’s about letting every single child know that they matter and deserve every possible opportunity to achieve their dreams.

Educational Expertise

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