AT&T’s Charlene Lake on Innovating Education Technology and Closing the Digital Gap

Originally published at Charlene Lake is Senior Vice President of AT&T Corporate Social Responsibility. AT&T is a Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Hall of Fame company.


Every day, we engage in online activities. Applying for a job, checking our finances, managing health – all of these activities are essential to the way we live our lives, and all of them require access to and a familiarity with the internet.

This year, I’ve talked frequently about the digital divide and its impact on millions of students and families who remain locked out of opportunity because they don’t have reliable access to the internet.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill is a good first step toward universal connectivity and making broadband more affordable for low-income households. But troubling are stats like this Pew Research study showing that 71% of those without home broadband say they are not interested in having it.

As a society, we’re growing increasingly reliant on technology and connectivity, and those without high-speed internet access will be left further and further behind from the opportunities it enables.

Earlier this year, Morning Consult reported that 70% of parents and teachers think classroom learning environments will rely more heavily on technology coming out of the pandemic. Yet, portions of our population still don’t have the necessary digital literacy skills to participate effectively in our digital world. One in three workers lacks fundamental digital skills, according to the National Skills Coalition.

For education to successfully prepare today’s youth with the necessary skills for life, we need significant innovation and problem-solving to untangle the issues deeply rooted within the digital divide. We know, for example, that it’s not enough for learning and education to be connected to the internet. It also needs to be interesting, entertaining and culturally relevant to engage students and families who may be new to digital learning.

That’s why I am so proud of the work AT&T is doing to support the next generation of ed-tech visionaries through the Accelerator program. Over the past seven years, we’ve been able to make a difference in the learning lives of 70 million students by supporting young, up-and-coming innovators applying their minds, skills and diverse perspectives to building the educational solutions required to reach the unique needs of today’s learners. To date, 71% of our participants have been women and 59% have been people of color – and all of our graduates have collectively secured an additional $85 million in funding after AT&T’s investment.

This year’s innovation cohort focused on improving distance-learning experiences in the areas of STEM, social-emotional learning and reading literacy. As we mark the group’s graduation, I want to highlight a couple of company founders who were voted to have the best pitch for helping to narrow the homework gap at our recent Pitches with Purpose Accelerator graduation event. These companies embody the ways the ed-tech space is innovating to create more engaging and inclusive digital learning experiences:

  • Read to Lead is empowering the next generation of readers and leaders by providing a suite of online learning experiences coupling reading, critical thinking and career exploration. The platform improves middle school students’ reading proficiency and critical thinking skills, while it provides educators with a holistic model for developing student literacy, life and career skills.
  • Founded by teachers, Floop is a feedback literacy company that empowers learners with the lifelong skills of seeking, giving and using feedback to learn. Its mobile-friendly web app helps teachers give feedback four times faster and teaches students to engage with feedback.

I am excited by the work of these innovators and the opportunity to scale their capabilities to more students and families through the AT&T Connected Learning program. Their contributions are essential to helping bridge the opportunity gaps through inclusive and engaging learning experiences that ultimately lead to new opportunities and upward economic mobility.

Getting this content into the hands of the families who need it most is vital to the work we do through AT&T Connected Learning. Our 2021 Pitches with Purpose winners, Read to Lead and Floop, will join past Accelerator innovators like 2018 graduate Weird Enough Productions to inform the high-quality educational and digital literacy content we are working to provide teachers and students learning in schools, at home and in our Connected Learning Centers opening in more than 20 underserved neighborhoods across the U.S.

Also part of our Accelerator alumni is a strong presence of tutoring and mentoring.  For example, UPchieve is the first free app to provide 24/7 tutoring and mentoring to low-income high school students on math and science topics as well as college advice.

Many of our employees at AT&T have volunteered through UPchieve to help with homework, test prep and college applications. I’m thrilled we’re scaling UPchieve through our AT&T Connected Learning Centers to reach even more students, schools and community organizations impacted by the digital divide.

As we look ahead hopefully to 2022 and the ability to put the toughest experiences of the pandemic behind us, public and private organizations must continue to support innovations that drive stronger, more inclusive learning outcomes. Connected learning is here to stay, and it’s vital that all youth have the tools and resources needed to receive a quality education and start a career in this digital world.