As the digital divide widens, tech companies help fill the gap

With devices, donations, and critical resources, companies like HP are helping make distance learning more equitable and accessible.

By Arnesa A. Howell — September 8, 2020

As the new school year begins, students and teachers across the country are returning to a patchwork of possibilities — attending school in person, all-remote learning, or a hybrid approach, with some students at home and others at school. It’s unchartered territory for everyone — parents struggling to help their kids learn at home, teachers navigating learning platforms, and students adapting to this new reality. And those facing the biggest challenges: families without Wi-Fi, laptops, and PCs at home. 

“Students without high-quality connectivity and devices are facing an uphill battle in accessing educational resources and connecting with teachers,” says Amina Fazlullah, digital equity counsel for the nonprofit Common Sense Media. “Everyone’s feeling trepidation about the new school year and what this model of learning will look like.”

Fazlullah and her team have been collecting stories from parents and teachers across the country about how a lack of access to technology is affecting student learning. For example, in St. Joseph, Missouri, high school students without internet access at home traveled to fast food restaurants to tap into Wi-Fi for class. In Montgomery, Alabama, children waited at home for their parents to return from work to jockey for use of a single device to complete their schoolwork. Meanwhile, the 15-year-old daughter of a single, working mom in Los Angeles did homework on a smartphone because her family didn’t have money for a laptop or Wi-Fi. 

“Education is supposed to be equal, but right now it is shouting in our faces how much it is not,” says an elementary teacher in Marysville, California, just one among a sea of voices expressing concern about how the pandemic is widening the already deep digital divide, exacerbating the glaring racial and income inequalities in education, nationwide and globally.

Shrinking the digital divide with technology

Roughly 15 to 16 million US students — nearly one-third of all US public school students and disproportionately Black, Native American, and Latinx — are without sufficient technology to learn remotely. While some do what they can with smartphones, it’s not enough to keep pace with their peers who have computers, leaving them and others quickly falling behind — and even sliding backward — from where they were academically before the pandemic hit. 

In response, technology companies are stepping up — in some cases donating millions in cash and technology to local schools, delivering internet access through solutions like Cradlepoint’s endpoint devices for LTE hotspots, Google’s internet carrying hot air balloons and Kajeet’s Wi-Fi-equipped school buses, and launching programs to enhance distance learning, like Logitech’s webcam and headset program for teachers. 

In addition to donating more than $10 million in products and grants to communities impacted by COVID-19, HP is partnering with community organizations, school districts, and education partners in creative ways to empower educators and help students learn. Here are some of the ways HP is meeting urgent needs now, supporting its goal of improving learning outcomes for 100 million people around the world by 2025.

“It’s about catching the kids that are falling through the cracks until schools and governments around the world can get these students equipped with the computers they should have.”

—Bill Avey, Global Head and GM of Education, HP Inc.

Activating device donations in local communities

The HP Refresh program, a global effort that first rolled out in the rural community of Kuna, Idaho, as the pandemic took hold, creates an easy way to give older computers new life for students in need.

“It’s about catching the kids that are falling through the cracks until schools and governments around the world can get these students equipped with the computers they should have,” says Bill Avey, global head and general manager of education at HP.

The initiative helps communities organize their own donation drives with a free Community Activation Playbook, which gives guidance on how to safely collect, clean, and refurbish computers for distribution, as well as software to securely wipe data and reformat each device for students.

HP Refresh software and resources are free and open-source, and so far they’ve been put to use by churches, civic and business groups, and youth scouting organizations in the US and Canada, as well as South Africa and Cambodia. In Idaho alone, 2,000 computers have been collected and distributed through Idaho Business for Education.

“A family with assets can go down to the store and get a $200 computer,” says Avey, “but the tragedy is the kid whose parents can’t do that — this is a way to help.”

Teenage girl using HP laptop, sitting on red couch

Tech companies are an important piece of the puzzle in addressing the need for access to devices and connectivity for remote learning.

Printed materials help expand access

For students without digital access, printed materials can be critical resources for learning away from school. According to the National Survey on Public Education’s Response to COVID-19, nearly half of high-poverty and rural school districts distributed paper packets to students in grades K-5 as part of their distance-learning strategy. 

In a gymnasium turned makeshift warehouse in the Scarborough area of Toronto, Canada, the nonprofit Parents Engaged in Education (PEIE) assembles “Learn at Home Kits,” which include colorful activity books and curriculum materials for kids and teens facing the so-called “homework gap” — the inability to keep up with schoolwork because of a lack of technology or internet access at home. This summer, the kits included 10,000 printed workbooks full of environmental- and conservation-themed activities developed by Britannica, printed and donated as part of HP’s Turn to Learn program. Since the onset of the pandemic, school districts, non-profits, and other service organizations in the US, Canada, and Haiti have ordered more than 220,000 booklets. HP has also donated more than 100 refreshed notebook PCs and printers to PEIE.

The workbooks — along with more than 100 HP Sprocket portable printers — are being distributed to charities and service organizations across Toronto, including the Native Women’s Resource Centre of Toronto, Caribbean African Canadian Social Services, and the Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough. The printed booklets include science-based information and activities like creating a canning-jar ecosystem and writing a journal about an imaginary trip to Mt. Everest. 

“We realized early on that even if you send out a computer to every child living in poverty, they don’t necessarily have the skills to use it,” says Theresa Pastore, PEIE’s executive director. 

She notes that printed materials not only help kids learn without technology, they also spark curiosity and offer ideas for online exploration when technology is accessible: “We’re trying to bridge the gap between pencil and paper, and online.”

Equipping the new hybrid classroom 

The road ahead is also challenging for many schools navigating a new, hybrid learning environment. In the Susquehanna Township School District in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for example, nearly one-third of its 2,800-student population is opting for all-remote access this fall.

“We knew we needed to be flexible and give parents choice, and we wanted to provide the best education possible for all of our students,” says Justin Green, the district’s director of technology. 

To serve students online and in the classroom without increasing workload for teachers, the school system partnered with HP to create a hybrid experience that ensures all students get the same high-quality education and connection to their teachers. 

The suite of interactive tools helps teachers broadcast their lessons to remote learners as well as the ones in the classroom, at the same time. Essentially an all-in-one remote teaching studio, it includes web-connected cameras that follow an instructor around the room and can zero in on a whiteboard or other focal points. HP Elite Slice conferencing technology helps teachers manage online instruction easily from the front of the room, and sits atop a portable workstation that includes a laptop and a large monitor that lets teachers see remote students and those sitting in class simultaneously. Teachers can also record lessons for students to review on their own later, and remote students can share content and participate in class discussions using their own webcams and microphones. HP is piloting the solution in the Susquehanna Township School District, with plans to expand to more schools. 

“Using this technology provides remote students the chance to participate and engage with their physically present teacher, virtually,” Green says.


The HP Refresh Program | Donating Computers to Students in Need

The HP Refresh program helps communities organize drives to gather unused computers, safely wipe the data using HP software, and donate them to students.

Empowering educators to excel online

Ensuring a high-quality education from a distance is about more than making sure everyone is connected and has a device — it also requires a new approach to teaching.

HP’s BeOnline initiative provides a free platform of tools and resources that educators can tap into to build new teaching skills for the digital environment. “The agents of transformation in any education system are teachers, and we’re putting the effort into them,” says Matias Matias, head of global business development for education at HP.

Among other things, the program includes a series of tutorials that encourage teachers to reimagine daily tasks within the context of distance learning: How do they prepare for their day? How can they assess their class? How do they innovate? Teachers can also click into deep-dive webinars to learn how to create immersive learning games or educational “escape rooms” — timed challenges that teach students critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in subjects such as math, science, history, and geography, plus the importance of teamwork and communication. 

Matias says learning to use these digital tools and resources effectively helps teachers make their classes more relevant and sparks students’ imaginations from afar. “It’s our recipe to empower teachers with inspiring content and creative ideas that improve academic productivity,” he says.

The program is currently focused on Spanish-speaking regions, with plans to roll it out more broadly with the goal of delivering a better remote learning experience to nearly 3 million students around the globe.

Looking ahead, tech companies will remain an important piece of the puzzle in addressing the longstanding problem of the digital divide, according to Common Sense Media’s Fazlullah. She says in-kind and tech donations are good “first steps,” but an ongoing commitment to prioritizing schools and students is paramount. 

HP’s Avey echoes that sentiment, noting that technology companies are filling an important need as the pandemic amplifies the challenges of distance learning. 

“These solutions are not the panacea,” he says, “but they can help get us through this crisis.”