Closing the educational divide and the digital skills gap has always been important to technologically-minded educators, but the disruptions of COVID-19 have brought a new urgency. Ensuring all students can participate equitably and fulfill their dreams in society hinges on having the right access to technology, especially in the education system.
Students from underserved schools often lag behind in skills and opportunity when they leave the education system. When used responsibly, technology can be a real equalizer in the education field—it helps close the educational divide and creates the opportunity to build the digital skills necessary for the high-demand jobs of the future.
Students who leave school with these skills can better compete on a playing field often tipped against them. Skilling all of our students for the digital workforce, regardless of socioeconomic status or ability, is one of the most powerful ways we can help level that playing field.
High stakes for tech skills
While the global economy has long been moving toward digital transformation, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated that trajectory. The need for digital skills transcends industries. On the individual level, people who were working in offices with on-site support before the pandemic are now working in living rooms and garages, and many suddenly find they not only need to use a wider array of digital tools but they also have become their own IT departments.
In a broader sense, the pandemic threatens to jolt the existing fault lines of the digital skills divide. The service sector suffered the highest pandemic-related unemployment rates, which means the market is flooded with job-seekers who need upskilling in order to be competitive in the job market of today and tomorrow. Increasing automation and digitization have brought a demand for technologically skilled workers to industries like manufacturing that have previously been considered low-skilled work. A recent analysis predicts a jump in the number of jobs that will revolve specifically around technology, such as software development, cybersecurity, and data analysis, by 2025.
Meanwhile, although technology is increasingly enmeshed in just about every field imaginable, employer-run job training declined through the early 2000s and has stagnated since, according to data from the Council of Economic Advisers. Students who enter the workforce prepared with the necessary skills will become the workers who succeed. There is a crucial need for that workforce to be diverse. Algorithms reflect the people who build them, and responsible development of AI and machine learning calls for development by people with a variety of backgrounds, abilities, and experiences to reduce the likelihood of biases being built into the systems.
Skilling in schools—making it happen
It is important to provide educational programs both inside and outside of the classroom that help prepare learners of all ages for the job market. These programs in places like Atlanta, Houston, and other cities answer the need for skilling and reskilling at all points across the career lifecycle. Programs for students and educators help bridge the gaps between what schools would like to provide and the limited resources they have.
Technology itself does not discriminate, but equal access does not prevail. Rectifying this inequity requires partnerships with governments, private sector, and educators and school system administrators to make a concerted effort to get technology into the hands of students who have been traditionally underserved, including students of color, immigrant communities, and those in rural areas. This may mean looking to outside programs and partnerships focused on diversity and inclusion that can act as a force multiplier for a school’s increased access to key resources.
At the same time, inclusive use of technology can provide opportunities to students with diverse learning needs or variable abilities, potentially giving them access to jobs and experiences that would not be possible otherwise. This requires educators who are committed to familiarizing themselves with the accessibility features in the technology they are bringing into the classroom and willing to share what they learn. This is an investment of time, but it is one with rich rewards.
Skills make the difference
No matter where students come from or what their abilities are, they all deserve the opportunity to thrive in the challenging work environment of the future. Fluency in technology can help make that happen.
Having these skills can mean the difference between struggling to keep up with an evolving world and exercising control over one’s future. Technological skills are a tremendous equalizer: they give students access to the power of an ecosystem that can truly deliver greater success and innovation to the benefit of every person on the planet.