This article was published in the Fall 2020 issue
by Scott Pulsipher, President, Western Governors University (WGU)
It is sobering to consider what the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic would have been if it had taken place 30 years ago, before internet access was ubiquitous and pocket-sized devices could connect us to the world of learning and work, to far flung friends and family, and to entertainment and consumption with only a click. The pandemic’s secondary effects, including economic upheaval, lost educational opportunity, and social isolation, would likely be far worse if COVID-19 had struck a pre-connected world.
Unfortunately, for 21 million Americans who lack internet access—including more than 100,000 Utahns—this unconnected world of decades ago is exactly the one in which they live. In 2019, this represented a distinct disadvantage; in post-COVID 2020, when everything from kindergarten to college has moved online, it is total exclusion from opportunity. Digital connectivity is no longer a luxury, it is critical infrastructure to which all Americans need access.
I serve as President of Western Governors University, an online, competency institution serving working learners in all 50 states—based in Salt Lake City. We benefit from the digitally savvy workforce in Utah, and an innovative culture that empowers us to be on the cutting edge of educational technology. But Utah’s tech community—and indeed, our nation—will never embody its full potential until every person is connected to opportunity.
Bridging the digital divide is a vital issue for powering learning and work in the 21st century. Lack of digital connectivity impacts one out of five students and is even more common for low-income students. Some of these students will struggle to find hotspots in public areas that they can access during COVID; others will forgo enrolling altogether. These are the forgotten students, and we cannot allow them to be offline and left behind.
The millions of Americans who have been economically displaced by COVID need internet connectivity to access education and training opportunities to enable them to earn new skills and prepare for their next opportunity. Ensuring that these Americans have access to online education will be critical for our economy to recover. We cannot afford to leave workers on the sidelines.
We each have a role to play in addressing this issue. At WGU, we have set aside $1 million for Online Access Scholarships, which provide students with a laptop and support to cover broadband access for the duration of their enrollment at WGU. But this problem is a societal one that demands a comprehensive response: every tech leader and innovator should join us in actively working with the governor and our leaders in Washington to take immediate action to expand Internet access to every American.
As leaders in technology, we shape the innovations and tools of the future. But we cannot forget the millions of Americans, including those in our own state, who are still living in the technological past. There are economic reasons to close the digital divide: it will improve employment, workforce competitiveness, and unleash human potential. But the most compelling reason is one of fairness: particularly at a time when COVID-19 has accelerated both economic dislocation and technological change, we must build the critical infrastructure to connect every American to the digital opportunities of the 21st century.
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