Dallas business leaders must invest in online education that will close the digital divide

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the country to pivot to remote learning, the depth of the digital divide in our country was laid bare. In Texas we discovered that 1.8 million public school students in grades K-12 did not have Wi-Fi connectivity, and 1 out of every 4 students lacked a computer or tablet with which to access online learning.

Dallas ISD is especially challenged with 87{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of its student body defined as “economically disadvantaged.” Now is the time to reimagine post-pandemic education nationally, catalyzing the for-profit and nonprofit sectors in a common effort to create a better way to learn. Now is also the time for corporations to recognize a return by investing in tomorrow’s diverse workforce, closing the digital divide and replacing it with a portal to unlimited learning.

School districts have scrambled with public and private support to offer software, connectivity, and devices to those in need. In many cases, temporary solutions used off-the-shelf software from multiple sources since there was little time for customization. Inevitably, remote learning has presented challenges for teachers, students and parents. If technology is the great enabler that can re-energize education by putting the keys to unlimited learning in the hands of every child, then why are so many struggling? Attendance has suffered, grades are measurably declining, and many are longing for a return to classroom normalcy.

My answer is simple. We put digital tools in place, but they lack the integration and capacity for engagement that are necessary to make virtual learning transformative. Today’s online classrooms provide tools but not solutions. To date, we have simply made it possible to go online with the way we’ve taught for hundreds of years.

Instead of simply creating video access to a teacher and a blackboard in the traditional sense, education needs to become a dynamic, engaging experience. Instead of technology as a temporary fix, we should see this as an unprecedented opportunity that can catapult us to create a world-class virtual learning system of the future.

Technology can be used to bring students into a virtual board room, operating room or laboratory as real-life actions are unfolding. The practical applications of this new model for education are vast.

Today’s students learning French could toss their flashcards and instead be virtually transported to Paris to converse with locals, watch a French movie, or practice ordering their food on the Champs-Élysées. We can create a more compelling way to learn with images, experiences and active participation. In today’s technology enabled world, learning can become as addictive for students as their favorite video games, and students can learn in a more meaningful, even life-changing way.

Step one in this education technology revolution must be integration. The tools exist, but we have not yet unleashed the power of technology by strategically integrating or reimagining how to use them. For example, teachers today may use software like Google Classroom or PowerSchool, but because these are discrete software programs that don’t facilitate smooth integration, the experience can be intimidating and ineffective.

Remember the days before Microsoft Office, when word processing, spreadsheets or presentations were all separate applications? This is the reality of academic software today. Software integration isn’t needed only for core curriculum but also to provide important links to third-party providers. Links to college courses can allow high school students to build credits online. Links to corporations can facilitate internships, part-time employment, or even full-time jobs. All of this is possible through technology.

Step two is making these tools more engaging. Why is it that a student may passively interact with a one-dimensional class online and then use that same device to become actively immersed in a video game for hours? In the former scenario, knowledge is being transmitted from the teacher to the students. In the video game, technology creates an interactive experience and users are rewarded by leveling-up, meaning they work toward a higher level of play with built-in incentives and measurements of success, while creating a sense of community through virtual participation with friends.

If we applied the same gamification creativity to the educational experience, we could achieve the same level of engagement. Even more exciting is the opportunity to provide micro-scholarship incentives along the way. Using today’s secure blockchain technology, we can offer scholarship rewards in as little as 50-cent increments that accumulate over time. Imagine a student earning enough scholar dollars for full-time college by the senior year of high school.

The Dallas Education Foundation has accepted the challenge to marshal public and private support to reinvent education with an initiative called Project Dream Big, facilitating software integration and engagement techniques to build a virtual learning system. How ironic that Dallas, one of the nation’s most successful cities for corporate headquarters, is also home to some of most economically challenged public school students.

As the primary beneficiary of an educated workforce, every corporation should see this initiative as a worthwhile investment. Corporate investment in technology for public school students can measurably demonstrate that shareholder value and social good are not mutually exclusive.

If we can shift our lens to look at the current crisis as an opportunity, we can use technology to inform students, develop a more diverse pipeline for future employment, and shrink the socio-economic divide in our communities.

James W. Keyes is a board member of the Dallas Education Foundation and a former chief executive of 7-Eleven Inc. and Blockbuster Inc. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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