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.
“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.