Coronavirus unveils the digital divide in our education system

Coronavirus unveils the digital divide in our education system
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Out of the coronavirus crisis have come major shockwaves fundamentally affecting our country, the national economy, and many aspects of how we live. It may be tempting to think that only the obviously impacted sectors, like health care and the service industry, need to adapt and learn from the pandemic. In truth, however, the coronavirus has touched more spheres of the economy and society than can easily be observed.

Among the most important of these spheres is education. Public officials and schools have been forced to implement new and innovative ways to teach our children from kindergarten to earning advanced degrees. The coronavirus has exposed a deeply rooted problem in education that may damage our economy long after the pandemic subsides.

That problem is a lack of preparedness for the future. As the private sector continues to grow increasingly digitized every year, many students across the country lack a basic understanding of technology and are becoming less qualified for the thousands of advanced manufacturing jobs that will soon dominate the economy. Often from the marginalized communities, these students are on the wrong end of the digital divide.

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The digital divide is the visible disparity between the haves and the have nots. In few places is this disparity more apparent than in schools. Those children who have early access to technology are positioned to succeed down the road. They are digitally literate, informed, and equipped to one day become leaders in politics, business, and society, all of which will be touched in different ways by the presence of technology.

But those who do not have advanced technology at home and school are at a great disadvantage. As members of the digitally illiterate generation, they will find that the country which educated them will have few places for them in a modern economy built around electronics, computerized engineering, and information services. As children left behind, they will find that domestic companies will prefer better trained employees from our competitors in places such as China and India, and local legislators will do little more than shrug their shoulders in sympathy.

The coronavirus crisis has made the digital divide a double edged sword. Under normal circumstances, many students have already been missing out on an education in digital technology that is critical to their futures. But in an extraordinary time when remote schooling is the only option, they do more than just fail to learn about technology. They fail to learn anything at all. The pandemic has shown that basic internet access and digital capabilities are not simply essential to the education of children, but are also quickly becoming essential to their success.

The answer to the digital divide is clear. Policymakers must push for schools across the country, and particularly those in less resourced communities, to invest for connecting students with next generation technology now. The 5G wireless network will not only allow students stuck on the wrong side of this digital divide to learn at lightning fast speeds, but also enable cutting edge technology like augmented and virtual reality to be used within future business processes.

By learning how to use technology early, students will be better poised to enter the workforce of tomorrow. Legislators, educators, and leaders have to refuse to fall into the trap of pushing off important investments without immediate returns. If there is a silver lining to be found in the pandemic, it is the realization that the resilience of our economy is owed to the key fact that more business is now conducted online than ever before.

Rather than chalking this up to the demands of an emergency, we have to understand that the digital trend is here to stay. We have to take action by spending money today to equip the future generation of workers with the skills to compete both at home and in the world. Schools should not label technology classes and online homework capabilities as luxuries. Sooner than later, knowing how to use technology and having all resources to do it will be far from luxuries. They will be absolute necessities.

Francis Taylor served as undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security and as assistant secretary of diplomatic security for the Department of State now with Cambridge Global Advisors.