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 turn to distance learning, the depth of the digital divide in our country was exposed. In Texas, we found that 1.8 million public grade K-12 students did not have Wi-Fi connectivity, and 1 in 4 students did not have a computer or tablet to access online learning.

Dallas ISD is particularly challenged as 87% of its students are classified as “economically disadvantaged”. Now is the time to redefine post-pandemic education at the national level and catalyze the nonprofit and nonprofit sectors to find a better way to learn together. Now is also the time for companies to see a return on investment by investing in the diverse workforce of tomorrow, closing the digital divide, and replacing it with a portal for unlimited learning.

School districts have sought public and private support to provide software, connectivity and devices to those in need. In many cases, temporary solutions used off-the-shelf software from multiple sources because there was little time to adapt. Distance learning has inevitably presented challenges for teachers, students and parents. If technology is the great enabler that can revive education by putting the keys to unlimited learning in the hands of every child, why are so many struggling? Participation has suffered, grades are dropping measurably, and many are longing to return to normal in the classroom.

My answer is simple. We use digital tools, but they lack the integration and engagement skills required to make virtual learning transformative. Today’s online classrooms offer tools but not solutions. To date, we’ve just made it possible to go online with the way we’ve been teaching for hundreds of years.

Rather than simply creating video access to a teacher and blackboard in the traditional sense, education must become a dynamic, engaging experience. Rather than using technology as a temporary solution, we should view this as an unprecedented opportunity that can catapult us into creating a world-class virtual learning system of the future.

Technology can be used to take students into a virtual boardroom, operating room, or laboratory as real actions unfold. The practical applications of this new educational model are enormous.

Today’s students learning French could throw away their index cards and instead be virtually transported to Paris to chat with locals, watch a French movie, or practice ordering their food on the Champs-Élysées. We can create a more compelling way of learning with images, experience, and active participation. In today’s technology-based world, learning can be just as addictive for students as it is their favorite video games, and students can learn in more meaningful, even life-changing, ways.

The first step in this educational technology revolution must be integration. The tools are in place, but we haven’t unlocked the power of technology by strategically integrating or redefining how it is used. For example, teachers today may be using software like Google Classroom or PowerSchool. However, because they are discreet software programs that don’t allow for seamless integration, the experience can be intimidating and ineffective.

Do you remember the days before Microsoft Office, when word processors, spreadsheets, or presentations were separate applications? This is the reality of academic software today. The software integration is needed not only for the core curriculum, but also to provide important links to third party providers. Students can build credits online through links to college courses. Links to companies can facilitate internships, part-time employment, or even full-time positions. All of this is possible through technology.

Step two makes these tools more engaging. Why can a student passively interact with a one-dimensional class online and then actively immerse themselves in a video game for hours on the same device? In the former scenario, the knowledge is passed on from the teacher to the students. In video games, technology creates an interactive experience and users are rewarded at a higher level. This means that they work towards a higher level of play with integrated incentives and success measurements and create 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. The possibility of creating incentives for micro-scholarships along the way is even more exciting. With today’s secure blockchain technology, we can offer scholarships in as little as 50 cent increments that will accumulate over time. Imagine a student who by the senior year of high school makes enough money to go to full-time college.

The Dallas Education Foundation has taken on the challenge of raising public and private support to reinvent education with an initiative called Project Dream Big that facilitates software integration and engagement techniques for building a virtual learning system. How ironic that Dallas, one of the most successful corporate headquarters cities in the country, is also home to some of the most economically disadvantaged public school students.

As the primary beneficiary of a trained workforce, any business should view this initiative as a worthwhile investment. Business investment in technology for public school students can show measurably that shareholder value and social well-being are not mutually exclusive.

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

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

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