The impact of COVID-19 has widened longstanding gaps in computer and internet access, yet increased expectations that our neighbors across the region are comfortable in our new digital environment. The University remains committed to fostering full inclusion in our digital society through expanding access to hardware, internet service, technical assistance, and programming for those underrepresented in virtual spaces.
The University of Pittsburgh is proud to support our partners as they work to close these gaps by increasing residents’ access to computers and a reliable internet connection, providing technical assistance to the public, and offering programs teaching digital literacy across the lifespan.
This is of the utmost importance as:
- Research suggests that lack of access to technology will lead to an increase in the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers (Schneider, 2020).
- As of March, 2020, 1 in 5 households in Allegheny County were without internet at home, and in some areas this number is much higher—with almost 70% of households without broadband (Neighborhood Allies, 2020).
- Digital literacy is needed for 82% of middle-income jobs. These jobs account for 38% of job openings and employees earn 17% more than their non-digitized peers (Neighborhood Allies, 2020).
The University-wide response to this challenge has expanded to include numerous partnerships spanning a variety of alleviation efforts to include device and Wi-Fi access, technological support, digital education accessibility, and evaluating how we can continue to assist in community-led work.
Our key initiatives to support this area of focus:
- At the onset of COVID-19, Neighborhood Allies and Beyond the Laptops partnered with a coalition of regional entities, including Computer Reach, Pittsburgh Technology Council, Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), and the University of Pittsburgh mobilized to create an avenue through which Pittsburgh residents without necessary computing devices could gain access to one. The effort quickly grew from the coalition’s original goal of distributing 1,000 laptops throughout the Pittsburgh region, following a survey by Pittsburgh Public Schools revealing demand in the Allegheny region exceeding 5,000 devices.
Beyond the Laptops has raised over $375,000 and delivered 1,600+ devices to residents across the region through local partnerships. The Initiative has also secured a transformative challenge grant worth up to $200,000 matching every dollar raised through Beyond the Laptop PGH. Challenge grant funds will cover the costs of purchasing and refurbishing devices not yet available to an estimated 5,400 PPS households.
Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, the Keystone Initiative for Network-Based Research (KINBER), Carnegie Mellon University, and Pitt have partnered to introduce Every1Online – a project delivering broadband Wi-Fi access to Pittsburgh and surrounding communities, including the Homewood, Coraopolis, and New Kensington neighborhoods. A new super node emitting strong radio signals from atop the Cathedral of Learning connects to “repeater towers” located within each neighborhood, bringing new Wi-Fi access to approximately 450 households in the region.
Pitt’s full-time (Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.) Community Tech Help Desk provides free technical assistance to individuals and community organizations with computer-related questions and requests. Community Tech Help Desk services are available to the public and do not require an appointment to speak with a trained help desk volunteer.
Teaching Digital Skills
- In the Hill District, Pitt’s Digital Inclusion Center (DIC), which now also houses the Hill District CEC science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) studio, offers digital literacy classes such as Python to K-12 students and adult learners, and do not require any prior programming experience.
- Digital Inclusion Center alumni can receive a free laptop and one year of internet access in addition to program access, through the center’s partnership with LevelUp412. This partnership also offers online digital literacy classes to K-12 students whose current curriculum may not include computer skills. Offerings such as professional development courses are also available to senior citizens through this partnership.
Two projects, funded by the National Science Foundation, seek to advance digital equity efforts for residents across the region.
- From Data Literacy to Collective Data Stewardship: Technology-Supported Community-Driven Solutions for Urban Youth is the product of a research project led by Dr. Rosta Farzan. In this study, Farzan’s team explores why and how different Pittsburgh communities are navigating the demands of our new virtual landscape by identifying common barriers to digital inclusion, then developing actionable, community-centered solutions to those barriers.
- “RAPID: Understanding and Enhancing Internet Connectivity of Underserved Communities During the COVID-19 Crisis” is an effort led by Kostas Pelechrinis, investigating how households and communities without reliable internet access prior to the COVID-19 pandemic acquired it, as well as which hurdles arose in the process, and how institutions like universities can help bring long-term connectivity to residents of these neighborhoods who remain disconnected. Mr. Pelechrinis’ research currently supports the PittMesh community wireless network in conjunction with Pittsburgh nonprofit Meta Mesh Wireless Communities.
Drives, Donations, and DIY
Beyond the Laptop PGH: Expand online access, hardware distribution, and digital financial empowerment for Pittsburgh families and students by donating.
Neighborhood Allies. (2020). An Update on Pittsburgh’s Digital Divide Going Beyond the Laptops, from https://mailchi.mp/926301df2d74/an-update-on-pittsburghs-digital-divide-going-beyond-the-laptops-4351506?e=a38c9f8204
Schneider, S. (n.d.). New Research Details Racial, Socioeconomic Inequities During School Shutdown Across Allegheny County. Retrieved September 07, 2020, from https://www.wesa.fm/post/new-research-details-racial-socioeconomic-inequ...