Why achieving digital equity is a critical challenge of our time

Ensuring access to the digital world is the key to unlocking education, healthcare, and economic opportunity for millions.

By Arnesa A. Howell — August 6, 2021

The pandemic shift to working, learning, and spending most of our time at home immediately revealed two key truths about modern life: Digital technology provides crucial connections and opportunities in education, healthcare, employment, and participation in the global economy. And, those opportunities are not available or accessible to everyone.

Globally, the pandemic pushed distance learning out of reach for at least 463 million schoolchildren, including nearly 17 million students in the US, who lacked computers and high-speed internet. People who didn’t have reliable internet access — nearly half of the world’s population, according to the World Economic Forum — couldn’t access digital lifelines like virtual doctor appointments and other telehealth solutions. The unemployment rate in the US rose from 3.5% in February 2020 to 14.8% in April 2020, with millions unable to physically go to work or do their jobs online. In the US and around the world, the pandemic widened longstanding inequities and an already gaping digital divide — with the brunt of the educational, health, and economic hardship falling on lower-income and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities.

“The pandemic didn’t create the digital divide, but it did exacerbate it,” says Karen Kahn, chief communications officer and head of corporate affairs at HP. “It also bubbled up the urgency for a solution.”

To better understand the root causes and impacts of digital inequity — and identify solutions — HP launched the Partnership and Technology for Humanity initiative, or PATH, as part of the company’s goal to accelerate digital equity for 150 million people by 2030. PATH aims to pave the way toward digital equity for underserved communities worldwide by first listening to diverse communities to understand the root causes of this inequity, and then applying those insights to influence product innovation, partnerships, and solutions for change. 

The PATH initiative will focus on four specific communities that are most likely to experience the digital divide: women and girls; people with disabilities and aging populations; communities of color and marginalized groups; and educators and practitioners. 

As a first step, HP co-sponsored a virtual conference along with SXSW called “Accelerating the Path to Digital Equity” this month, in an effort to advance the conversation about how to achieve digital equity and what it requires: hardware, internet access, digital literacy, and quality content.


WATCH the replay of the SXSW HP PATH summit


“Digital equity is absolutely a human rights issue,” says Kahn. “Without it, millions of people are disenfranchised from education, healthcare, and economic opportunity. It will take collaboration and participation from a broad spectrum of organizations to achieve parity.”

Equipping students, parents, and teachers for 21st-century learning

When the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) moved to all distance learning in March 2020, thousands of students found themselves without access to school. Nearly 80% didn’t have computers they could use at home, almost 30% didn’t have internet access, and many families had been forced to move out of the city because of lost employment, housing instability, and other difficult circumstances.


HP’s Partnership and Technology for Humanity initiative aims to accelerate digital equity for millions worldwide.

Through a coordinated campaign that engaged teachers, the local community, tech companies, and community-based organizations, OUSD was able to ensure that nearly 100% of its 50,000-plus students had the tech, connectivity, and support they needed. HP donated more than 2,400 monitors, 500 printers, paper, and launched the HP Turn to Learn program, providing printed content for students without access to technology.

“We couldn’t have done this without the businesses supporting us,” says Preston Thomas, OUSD chief systems and services officer. “We need to use technology, but we’re not experts in developing and designing the infrastructure for it.”

In New York City, Harlem parent Tanesha Grant launched the nonprofit alliance Parents Supporting Parents NYC during the pandemic to fight digital inequity with donations of laptops and other resources for Black and Brown children, along with financial and emotional support for parents. By collaborating with HP’s PATH initiative, the grassroots organization has been able to expand its outreach through laptop giveaways and fundraising events. So far, HP has donated more than 300 laptops and printers, computer supplies, and skill-building materials.

“Digital equity is absolutely a human rights issue.”

—Karen Kahn, chief communications officer at HP

At a recent PSP event at PC Richards in Harlem, Ishmila, 13, a 9th grader at A. Philip Randolph received a laptop, printer, and paper. “It’s going to help me do homework because I don’t really have electronics to do my homework on, and if I need to print anything, I can, with paper,” she said. “My sister told me that it’s good to have your own computer.”

Similar partnerships have made a difference in cities across the country. In Washington, DC, where more than 20,000 children are without internet access, Melody Molinoff, co-lead of Digital Equity in DC Education, is part of a coalition of parents citywide pushing for computers in the hands of every student and teacher, as well as reliable internet connectivity in schools and homes, and digital literacy education integrated into the curriculum.

Molinoff first dialed into the digital equity conversation after seeing the computer equipment at her son’s Ward 3 elementary school in disrepair. “The computers were held together with duct tape and binder clips,” recalls Molinoff. “This school had about 100 computers for over 400 students.” 

Since the coalition launched in 2018, it’s been championing a 1-1 device ratio for the more than 50,000 students enrolled in DC Public Schools (DCPS). That goal has already been achieved for students in grades 3 through 12, thanks to advocacy and collaboration among parents, educators, community leaders, and nonprofits. 

“Not having access to technology and tools impedes your ability to fully participate in citizenry within your community,” Molinoff says. “If we want our children to be prepared to go into college and into the workforce, we have to have robust technology in our schools.”

Reaching digital health equity through inclusion

As with education, the sudden shift to widespread telehealth in 2020 highlighted huge disparities — and also created potentially dire consequences — with patients unable to access healthcare because they couldn’t take advantage of digital solutions. 


Two students creating a project using a Sprout Pro by HP. Digital tools are important for job searching and networking, building digital skills and literacy, and preparing for future careers.

“If you can’t access your doctor, you can’t be healthy,” says Priya Bathija, vice president of strategic initiatives for the American Hospital Association. “It’s no different than lacking access to food and then experiencing negative health outcomes that could have been prevented.”

That’s especially true for Black, Latinx, lower-income, and other vulnerable populations, which already have a harder time using options like telehealth. To attain digital health equity, Bathija says individuals must be able to not only access, but understand how to engage with the technology used to deliver care. 


RELATED: See how digital equity is core to HP’s goal to become the world’s most sustainable and just technology company.


It’s important to meet patients where they are, and to do that, Bathija recommends asking key questions: Who can afford broadband and Wi-Fi access? Who has a smartphone, tablet, or computer? Is the solution in the right language? Does it address cultural challenges of any given population or community?

Bathija points out that technology companies are key partners in creating and designing equitable digital solutions, and that they can help shrink the divide by being intentional about including underrepresented communities in the design phase of health technology solutions. In the meantime, solutions ensuring people have continued access to healthcare are critical, including mobile clinics, remote patient monitoring, and digital health navigators, who train patients in how to use online apps and portals.

“Tech companies are important partners because healthcare providers can’t necessarily think through all of the angles related to technology to improve access,” Bathija says. 

Unlocking access to the future of work

The same barriers hindering access to education and healthcare have serious implications for employment and economic opportunity. Digital tools are important for job searching and networking, building digital skills and literacy, preparing for future careers, as well as launching small businesses that can reach consumers online

Recognizing this, HP has unveiled a series of initiatives under the PATH program to support more equitable access to technology and help people gain the skills they need to make the most of it.

HP LIFE, a free IT and business skills training program offered by the HP Foundation, is being used in over 200 countries by more than 418,000 people worldwide to improve their information technology and business skills. The program offers courses from sales forecasting and strategic planning to finance basics and social media marketing. 

HP is also supporting marginalized communities by collaborating with organizations like the global girls education and empowerment organization Girl Rising, and social entrepreneurship and technology initiative MIT Solve.

The Girl Rising partnership brings technology solutions, a storytelling platform, and a curriculum to up to 10 million students and teachers around the world, amplifying their voices to create social change. Through the MIT Solve collaboration, HP is working to advance digital equity by granting up to $100,000 to social entrepreneurs participating in inclusion and anti-racist technology challenges. Together, these efforts ensure everyone — including women and girls, communities of color, and people with disabilities — are engaged in the growing digital economy.

“For HP, the main building block for digital equity is partnering with organizations directly involved with specific communities,” Kahn says. “It allows us to get straight to the heart of the problem.”