ASU co-hosts Future of Tech Commission's virtual Town Hall to discuss digital equity for all
Pictured above: The Town Hall featured ASU leaders Lev Gonick and Donna Kidwell, alongside Jim Steyer, Founder and CEO of Common Sense and co-chair of The Future of Tech Commission.
Digital equity and innovation are on the national agenda, as leaders globally aim to address the digital divide, deepened during the pandemic. But with such lofty goals to tackle, many wonder how we can advance far-reaching solutions.
Last month, nearly 400 attendees gathered virtually to hear local and national changemakers – including Arizona Senator Mark Kelly – who are ideating, crafting and advancing key technology policy measures at the Future of Tech Commission’s Town Hall: A public discussion on digital equity, access and tech innovator for workforce.
Hosted by ASU in partnership with the Future of Tech Commission and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the Town Hall featured panelists and talks to address federal and state policy, as well as public-private opportunities that promote digital equity for all and leverage technology to support innovations and access to workforce development. “Digital equity is one of the greatest social justice issues of our time,” said Gonick at the Town Hall introduction.
“Tech is 24/7,” said Steyer, “and we need to have a coordinated, thoughtful, long-term policy for the country.”
A Senator’s perspective: Digital equity and access for Arizona
Senator Kelly explained that students having access to reliable high-speed internet and broadband connections were a problem. “No student should have to go to a coffee shop or McDonald’s to do their homework,” said Senator Kelly. “21st century high-speed internet access is not a luxury anymore, it’s a necessity to get a good education.”
Another priority of Senator Kelly’s is investing in research institutions like ASU and fostering university partnerships to ensure that students and faculty have access to the opportunities of the future.
It's more than digital equity and access, it’s training and representation for all, students say
Bryan Brayboy, ASU Vice President of Social Advancement, Senior Advisor to the President and President's Professor, moderated an incredible student panel as they shared their personal accounts of the struggles they face in their generation, their communities and their families. Brayboy asked about the most intense challenges when it comes to access to high-speed internet, how they’ve managed through the pandemic and what practices they would like to see move forward. “If we’re providing resources, how are we making sure that it fits for everybody?” asked Breanna Smith, Bachelor’s in Tourism Development and Management.
The students continued to give heartfelt examples about how important Smith’s question is. Lourdes “Lulu” Pereira (Bachelors in Justice Studies and American Indian Studies) explained that just because high-speed internet may be installed in towns, many communities have additional needs, like access to equipment and training. “How is someone going to go out to where you live or where your villages are and install what you need to use high-speed internet...a lot of people don’t have that accessibility,” said Pereira. “Coming from a family of nine sisters and four brothers, we didn’t even have a computer.”
What are the next steps to overcome some of these severe challenges and narrow the digital divide? The student panel shared many needs to overcome these issues, including language accessibility, intergenerational assistance, federal funding to support tribal communities, tech literacy for our youth and more. “In an ideal future, we are providing these things to students – training, online tools, and resources – making sure that we are continuously available if they need help and support,” said Mary Haddad (Bachelor’s in Conservation Biology and Ecology and Bachelor of Arts in Earth and Environmental Studies).
Haddad and Lorena Austin (Bachelor’s in Transborder Chicana/o & Latina/o Studies, U.S. and Mexican Regional Immigration Policy and Economy) both shared the importance of seeing others with similar backgrounds and commonalities in their learning environment and what a powerful part of their education that has been. “It was the first time in my life that I had more than one professor who looked like me, that my name was said correctly in class,” said Austin. “Being in that environment felt like home for the first time in an educational setting.”
“Representation is crucial,” added Haddad.
From those living change to those making change
The changemaker panel agreed with the students, confirming that the pandemic shined the spotlight on the digital divide. “The inequities have grown throughout the pandemic and that’s going to be an ongoing work for the state, public policymakers and all sorts of stakeholders in the recovery process,” said Callie Kozlak, Associate Superintendent for Policy and Government Relations at Arizona Department of Education.
The changemakers shared examples of how they’ve been able to create change in their communities, including providing computers, internet and training to those in need. Arizona State Library Digital Inclusion Library Consultant Nicole Umayam shared how they bought extenders to provide WiFi in the library parking lot and created the website Connect-Arizona.com, a free WiFi map where users can find free and affordable broadband in their area.
Erin Carr-Jordan, Head of ASU ADVANCE, explained that the key is having all voices heard. “As we identify solutions, we need to be engaging, listening to, and responsive to the unique needs of the communities all over the state,” said Carr-Jordan. “If we come together as cities, towns, policymakers, humans doing these good works, we then can create something that can move mountains because we really do have them still to move.”
Help wanted: programs and tools to help the workforce
Meredyth Lacy, Head of Upskilling at ASU, and Angela Gunder, Chief Academic Officer at the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), both spoke to the need for training in order to have a more digitally fluent workforce. “Critical roles that require a higher level of training skills focus learning has never been more important as a pathway to economic opportunity,” said Lacy. “We need programs that teach job relevant skills, and in demand areas, those skills should be identified in close partnership with employers.”
Gunder explained that the OLC is a network partner of Every Learner Everywhere, which advocates for equitable outcomes in U.S. higher education through advances in digital learning. “We’ve seen systematic failures to address under funding and lack of infrastructure to support institutions, particularly those that service Black, Latinx, indigenous, poverty and first gen students and also in rural areas,” said Gunder. “Digital equity really starts by honoring the many literacies that our students and educators uniquely bring to the classroom.”
Participants are changemakers, too
During the two-hour live event, attendees used Zoom’s chat function to ask questions or share comments, Google Jamboard to answer pre-populated questions and were encouraged to complete the FTC’s Community, Public & Expert Input Form.
So, what happens next? Steyer shared that the Future of Tech Commission will synthesize what they heard during the Town Hall event and all other Town Halls throughout America and turn that into specific long- and short-term policy recommendations. At the end of the summer, they will deliver a blueprint to President Joe Biden. “We couldn’t be more grateful for the contribution,” said Steyer. “We’re going to turn this into action. Period.”
Watch the Town Hall recording now:
How to continue making digital equity a reality
About FTC Town Halls
The Future of Tech Commission is an independent and bipartisan working group of civic leaders developing a comprehensive, inclusive tech policy agenda for the nation. Steyer and team have hosted 12 Town Halls throughout rural and urban communities with the virtual roadshow ending in Arizona.