When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the country to switch to distance learning, the depth of the digital divide in our country was exposed. In Texas, we found that 1.8 million K-12 public school students lacked Wi-Fi connectivity and one in four students did not have a computer or tablet. to access online learning.
The Dallas ISD is particularly challenged with 87% of its student body defined as “economically disadvantaged”. Now is the time to reinvent post-pandemic education nationwide, catalyzing the for-profit and non-profit sectors in a joint effort to create a better way to learn. Now is also the time for companies to recognize a return by investing in the diverse workforce of tomorrow, bridging the digital divide and replacing it with a portal to unlimited learning.
School districts have rushed with public and private support to deliver software, connectivity and devices to those in need. In many cases, the interim solutions used out-of-the-box software from multiple sources as there was little time for customization. Inevitably, distance learning presented challenges for teachers, students and parents. If technology is the great catalyst that can re-energize education by putting the keys to unlimited learning in the hands of every child, then why are so many people struggling? Attendance has suffered, grades are dropping measurably, and many are yearning for a return to normal in class.
My answer is simple. We’re putting digital tools in place, but they lack the integration and engagement capacity to transform virtual learning. Today’s online classrooms provide tools but not solutions. To date, we’ve simply made it possible to bring the way we’ve been teaching for hundreds of years online.
Instead of just creating video access to a teacher and a board in the traditional sense, education needs to become a dynamic and engaging experience. Instead of seeing technology as a temporary solution, we should see it as an unprecedented opportunity that can catapult us into creating a world-class virtual learning system of the future.
The technology can be used to bring students into a virtual conference room, operating room, or lab as real actions take place. The practical applications of this new model of education are vast.
Today’s students learning French could throw away their flashcards and 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 pictures, experiences and active participation. In today’s technological world, learning can become as addicting for students as their favorite video games, and students can learn in more meaningful, even life-changing ways.
The first step in this technological revolution in education must be integration. The tools are there, but we have yet to unleash the power of technology by integrating them or strategically re-imagining how to use them. For example, teachers today can use software like Google Classroom or PowerSchool, but because they are discrete software that doesn’t facilitate smooth integration, the experience can be intimidating and inefficient.
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 is not only necessary for the core program, but also to provide important links to third party vendors. Links to college courses can allow high school students to earn credits online. Links with companies can facilitate internships, part-time jobs or even full-time jobs. All of this is possible thanks to technology.
The second step is to make these tools more attractive. Why can a student passively interact with a one-dimensional classroom online, then use that same device to actively immerse themselves in a video game for hours on end? In the first scenario, knowledge is transmitted from the teacher to the students. In video games, technology creates an interactive experience and users are rewarded with a leveling up, which means they work towards a higher level of gaming with built-in incentives and metrics for 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 possibility of offering incentive micro-scholarships along the way. Using today’s secure blockchain technology, we can offer scholarship rewards in increments of as little as 50 cents that accumulate over time. Imagine a student earning enough academic money for full-time college by the last year of high school.
The Dallas Education Foundation has accepted the challenge of mobilizing public and private support to reinvent education with an initiative called Project Dream Big, facilitating the integration of software and engagement techniques to create a virtual learning system. How ironic that Dallas, one of the nation’s most prosperous cities for corporate headquarters, is also home to some of the most economically disadvantaged public school students.
As the primary beneficiary of an educated workforce, every business should view this initiative as a worthwhile investment. Corporate investment in technology for public school students can demonstrate in a measurable way that shareholder value and social good are not mutually exclusive.
If we can change our minds to view the current crisis as an opportunity, we can use technology to educate students, develop a more diverse pipeline for future jobs, and reduce the socio-economic divide in our communities.
James W. Keyes is a member of the board of directors of the Dallas Education Foundation and a former CEO of 7-Eleven Inc. and Blockbuster Inc. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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