How the pandemic is shaping tech’s approach to education

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Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, knew she didn’t have a choice. With the COVID-19 crisis shutting down the thousands of programs offered by the nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology, Saujani was determined to not let the last eight years of work towards inspiring and teaching the next generation of female coders go to waste.

“As an organization, because we have a deep commitment to our girls, had to quickly think about what we were going to do,” Saujani said. “Are we going to wait to see what could happen? Or are we going to pivot and develop a virtual programming model so that we make sure our girls are not left behind….So we quickly had to develop a two-week virtual program that replaced our summer immersion programs, and we taught 5,000 girls––half of which were under the poverty line, and half of which were Black or Latinx. We designed a program for them, because we knew that many of our students didn’t have computers at home or were accessing Wi-Fi in Burger King parking lots.”

While the pandemic may have brought unprecedented changes and challenges to K-12 schooling, shutting down schools, and forcing students to struggle with the often-miserable task of online learning, it at least has exposed the many inequities that had already been plaguing the U.S. education system for years, according to Saujani, Ebony Beckwith, and Avni Shah who spoke at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women virtual summit on Wednesday.

Beckwith, Chief Philanthropy Officer at Salesforce, said that the pandemic has forced us to reconsider what equal access to learning looks like.

“For example, we can’t encourage computer science classes if students aren’t able to even have a laptop at home,” Beckwith said. “As leaders, we really need to be narrowly focused on this right now. We know from our experience at Salesforce with working school districts serving diverse populations that there isn’t just a one-size-fits-all solution. We have to take an individualized approach to ensure that all students are receiving the right support and are on the path to success.”

Now, with those issues brought to light by the pandemic, there is hope that increased awareness will in turn lead to long-overdue change. Shah, VP of Google for Education, believes that tech companies have a significant role to play in terms of helping students bridge gaps, whether its providing access to learning devices like Chromebooks or developing educational programs like Read Along.

Still, Shah was quick to note that it will take more than an innovative technology company or product to make lasting change.

“This is not something any one tech company, nor tech companies together, can really solve alone,” Shah said. “It’s really going to take a broader community and societal effort to make this happen….Hopefully, because this is shining such a huge light on these inequities, we can get ahead of this and come up with solutions. ”

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