Photo provided by Project L.I.F.T.
August 9, 2018

Closing the digital divide in public schools

Success stories from the Digital Adoption in 2018 report

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A unique initiative is closing the technology gap for students and families in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Project L.I.F.T., (L.I.F.T. stands for Leadership & Investment for Transformation), is changing the way traditionally underserved students are educated, supported, and empowered to realize their full potential. They serve more than 7,000 students ranging from pre-K to high school ages, as well as their families, in the West Corridor—one of the most underserved communities in Charlotte. Participating schools have some of the largest digital divides, lack of access, and slowest connectivity speeds in the area.

The initiative, which began in 2011, is one of an increasing number of programs offering digital inclusion, according to the recent Digital Adoption in 2018 report.

The results of the report, produced by NTEN in partnership with Mobile Citizen, are encouraging, with more organizations providing some form of digital inclusion programming than ever before.

The majority of respondents indicated a mix of communities served, as well as issues faced by those communities. The largest specific communities served were individuals with low incomes, communities of color, and seniors. Critical areas for technology skills and access are more widely distributed, with education being the clear leader.

Chart from the report 2018 Digital Adoption in 2018, showing education as a critical need.

To address the education gap in low-income communities, Project L.I.F.T. established a unique public-private partnership between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Charlotte’s philanthropic community, with a focus on four pillars, one of which is increasing connectivity and access to technology in and out of the classroom.

After an initial focus on increasing technology within the classroom and increasing teacher capacity, the program now builds and opens labs for community members. Parents and guardians are using technology to learn more about how their child is performing in school, what platforms are available to increase achievement, and how to communicate with teachers, particularly through email. Additionally, the program plans to offer both mobile technology labs and an “earn a laptop and hotspot” initiative for families.

“Parents and community members have told us that free and limitless usage will also give parents a greater opportunity to learn about educational resources, apply for jobs, find resources to help, and access to healthcare online,” says Lindsey Sipe, Project L.I.F.T. Technology Facilitator at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and 2018 Digital Inclusion Fellow.

Early program experiences helped bring to the surface some of the challenges faced. For example, the program previously offered devices and connectivity for students to take home, but found that the lack of technical understanding and training were setbacks in the overall success of the project.

Equipped with those lessons learned, they decentralized, shifting to providing ongoing support and access. They also began offering a six-week course to help community members understand how to best leverage technology for issues such as healthcare, solving civic issues, education, and workforce development.

The initial start-up costs, the short timeline, and the concerns for transportation and mobility all played a huge factor in the current digital inclusion project. They are now working on pushing into the schools, partnering with the community, and looking for more sustainable options for future work.

By partnering with local schools and adapting to the needs of their community, Project L.I.F.T. has been able to push through challenges and celebrate successes. When the organization. was born, the high school graduation rate was an abysmal 51 percent. Today, the graduation rate for the 2016-2017 school year was nearly 90 percent. And the entire community now has a deeper understanding that technology has the potential to be a major factor in breaking the cycle that limits upward mobility.

We all have a role to play in closing the digital divide, from education-based initiatives like Project L.I.F.T. to those focused on workforce development or those serving niche populations where the needs are both unique and growing, such as seniors or immigrant communities. Organizations that incorporate digital equity into their work are helping communities access the necessary services, benefits, and social connections of our increasingly digital world.

Read more in the free Digital Inclusion in 2018 report.

This is part two of a two-part series on digital inclusion produced by Mobile Citizen. Read the first article here.

Cassie Bair
Cassie Bair is the Chief Business Development Executive of Voqal’s Mobile Citizen initiative, which advances social equity through access by providing low-cost wireless 4G internet exclusively to nonprofits, educational entities and social welfare agencies. She firmly believes technology should be used for social good and has a unique professional mix of nonprofit and start-up experience. Her passion is to unite nonprofits and social enterprises with the opportunities mobile technology presents.