New partnerships aim to close the digital divide

Published on September 25, 2020 in


Without computers or internet access, learning from home can result in little learning at all. 

Even before the pandemic began, a lack of technology made it difficult for students in need to further their studies outside of school hours. But with remote learning taking place on a wide scale due to COVID-19, the digital divide is growing larger.  

While many students have thankfully been able to stay safe while learning online from home, tens of thousands of Metro Detroit students lack the technology and internet access they need. 

In Detroit alone, 29,000 students in public and private schools don’t have the technology they need to learn. 

Online learning has become a way of life for many students this year. But too many children in Detroit lack access to the tools that make online learning a safe an convenient way to continue studies during a pandemic.

Closing the digital divide

United Way for Southeastern Michigan is working with partners across the region to solve the problem. 

We work to ensure that all children can start school ready to learn and graduate ready to succeed. Now, that includes making sure they can learn at home. 

“We know most children in Detroit and southeast Michigan are learning virtually,” said Vanita Sanders, Director of Education and Community Initiatives. “As a mom, the idea that some parents aren’t able to equip their kids with the laptops and technology they need is alarming, because it’s directly tied to their education, learning and growth as students.” 

“At this point in time, technology and connectivity is a basic need. It’s important that we rise to fill that gap.” 

In Detroit, we’re part of the Connect313 task force, with aims to increase internet access throughout the city. With a focus on hotpot lending at libraries, affordable home internet options and free WiFi locations, the goal is to provide internet access, technology and digital literacy programming within a 10-minute walk of every Detroit resident’s home. 

We’re also working in Pontiac and other communities to assess students’ needs,  bridge the divide and put technology into every student’s hands. 

Double Pandemics

We’re in the midst of a pandemic. And although COVID-19 may have exacerbated the problem, that’s not the pandemic that Joshua Edmonds is focused on. 

Joshua, director of digital inclusion for the city of Detroit’s Department of Innovation and Technology, was the featured speaker in a recent United Way Virtual Town Hall. He discussed Connect 313, a coalition of partners working to develop and implement a sustainable digital inclusion strategy that expands access to technology for Detroit families. 

The goal is to operationalize this as quickly as possible while at the same time being very mindful that we cant just move quick for the sake of moving quick,” Joshua said, but we need to move quick because this is a pandemic  and I’m not saying COVIDI’m saying poverty.  

We cant lose another generation to (poverty).” 

Both pandemics combined to disrupt learning for children throughout the city. While those with the means to do so were able to continue learning from home, 40 percent of Detroit residents lack access to broadband internet. More than 70 percent of households in the city struggle to afford basic needs.  

“The digital divide is not a technical problem  this is a societal one,” Joshua said.  

“None of us have to be electricians to see the value of electricity in our homes.” 

Joshua Edmonds, director of digital inclusion for the city of Detroit’s Department of Innovation and Technology, speaks during a recent United Way for Southeastern Michigan Virtual Town Hall. “The digital divide is not a technical problem — this is a societal one,” Joshua said.  

COLLABORATIVE PARTNERSHIPS 

United Way for Southeastern Michigan has joined the fight. We’ve teamed with Skillman Foundation and Detroit Children’s Fund to close the digital divide and ensure that all students have the tools necessary to learn and succeed in school. With the help of additional funders like the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Detroit Pistons and Quicken Loans, our goal is to raise $3.6 million to provide laptops, internet access and other digital supports to more than 33,000 charter and private school students in Detroit. 

United Way has also partnered with GreenLight Fund to enhance at-home learning. Students participating in a literacy program offered by national nonprofit Springboard Collaborative matches students in pre-kindergarten through third grade with teachers for live weekly workshops. Participants can join online or by phone to receive instruction, set goals, track progress and access books. 

“This collaborative partnership underscores Springboard’s strong reputation in helping change the course for many families through literacy,” said United Way for Southeastern Michigan Board Member Terry Rhadigan, executive director of Corporate Giving at General Motors. “An investment in Detroit students is an investment in Detroit’s future, and we’re proud to join this mission.” 

EXPOSING THE DIVIDE  

“COVID was one heck of an illuminating tool,” Joshua said. 

“It (exposed) the digital divide in a way that we can never unsee it.” 

A report from Connect 313 shows Detroit is the least connected city in America. The organization has vision to make Detroit a national model for digital inclusion by ensuring all Detroiters can access the digital world and the opportunity it brings.  

Our partnership with Connect 313 aims to increase the number of internet subscribers in the city by 4 percent per year. Other goals include increasing the percentage of homes with desktop and laptop computers by 2 percent per year and ensuring all Detroit residents are, on average, within a five-minute walk of a free WiFi network.  

A few objectives are in the works, including the Detroit Public Library Hotspot Lending Program, which would lend internet hotspots to families, and mapping all free WiFi locations in Detroit. Connect 313 is also working to market existing affordable internet options. Comcast and AT&T both offer internet for $9.95 per month for qualifying residents. 

Residents will have opportunities to learn more through a digital skills continuum, with free and low-cost digital skills programs listed on Connect313.org. Partnerships with churches will also help boost digital skills training, and a neighborhood-based technology entrepreneurship challenge will help keep the innovation flowing. 

BEYOND SCHOOL 

School and at-home learning are key reasons to close the digital divide, but they aren’t the only ones. Limits are everywhere. Those who lack proper access to technology struggle to apply for jobs and participate in telehealth appointments. A small business owner might struggle to create the online presence needed to promote their business   

Some people may rely on their cell phone’s internet connection, and others may only be able to get online at their nearest public WiFi location. Even those who can obtain a decent computer and proper broadband may still struggle to get up to speed due to a lack of technological experience and skills.  

Technology is important for things like work and school, but Connect 313 intends to teach a wide range of skills  even something as minor as Netflix training, 

Were looking at the total ecosystem and total individual,” Jonathan said.  

Together, we can ensure that all students have the technology they need to learn from home and that all individuals have the skills and internet access they need to navigate life in the 21st Century. Together, we can close the digital divide.