Closing the Tech Gap by Closing the Education Gap: Insights from The State Department

“To close the technology gap, we need everyone. We need girls whose cultures don’t value their education. We need talented people who live in poverty. We need everyone.”

-Lila Ibrahim, President, Coursera

I recently attended the Tech@State:EdTech event, a forum dedicated to leveraging education technology to aid U.S. diplomacy and development. There were many innovative technologies presented, from the VGo Robotic Telepresence, a moving video conference system, to smart classrooms tailored to blend virtual and in-person learning. However, one message that was reinforced is that for government to keep innovating, government must attract and nurture top talent. In order to do so, we must remove all the barriers that exist to accessing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, especially poverty and discrimination.

The event featured dynamic speakers, including Lila Ibrahim, President, Coursera .Coursera is an education company that partners with top universities to provide free academic courses that anyone can take. Ibrahim shared that Coursea works to remove barriers to providing quality STEM education and assure the path is easier for future generations. Ibrahim believes that Coursera is more than just social entrepreneurship; it is about providing technology that increases access to education to assure that agencies have the best people. The Tech@State event demonstrated that agencies are not just improving technology in their offices; they are leveraging technology to invest in global education.

The Top 2 Initiatives for Leveraging Global Talent to Improve Government

Open Online Education

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Open Educational Resources (OERs) provide ways for individuals who cannot afford a traditional educational experience to gain critical knowledge for advancing their career.

The State Department is currently investing in ways to provide OERs in local languages to our allies overseas. At first, government agencies were integrating MOOCs and OERs into traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, allowing students to enroll in online courses. Now, students are also offered a blended experience, and are beginning to leverage technology to broaden their studies.

With the help of innovations in technology, Coursera has partnered with the State Department to establish digital learning hubs and meet-ups overseas. This initiative allows students in online courses to get together to discuss the material and engage with their academic community, while learning about STEM opportunities at U.S. institutions.

Equal Access Tools For Women- At Home and Abroad

Worldwide, internet use is exclusively for the male head of household. Communities fear that internet use will expose women to unapproved content that will encourage them to stray from tradition and damage their role in the family.

To combat this prejudice, the State Department has created a policy that all educational materials must be free of restrictions based on gender, religion, and other discriminatory categories. Agencies reach out to community leaders to find ways to provide women with these materials. One speaker gave an example of distributing mobile phones to women to allow them to participate in MOOCs, yet their husbands and male relatives would consistently take the phone away because they believed mobile phones would lead women to adultery. The State Department partnered with UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization to find a solution. Organizations now paint phones pink, which made men embarrassed to use the phones and kept it out of their hands, allowing women to have full access to technology.

The gender gap in STEM does not only exist in cultures that prevent women from asserting their independence. Even here in the United States, where women have equal access to education and make up the majority of college and graduate school students, a dangerous gender disparity exists in STEM, due to cultural stigmas. In a panel discussion, two American technology leaders, Alice Borelli, Director of Global Healthcare Policy, Intel and Karen Peterson, Principal Investigator, National Girls Collaborative Project, shared the importance of getting girls interested in STEM. The panelists shared the following initiatives:

  • Girls Who Code: “Launched in Spring 2012, Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in STEM. With support from public and private partners, Girls Who Code works to educate, inspire, and equip high school girls with the skills and resources to pursue opportunities in computing fields,” according to their website.
  • Gender-Positive Video Games: The National Girls Collaborative is working to develop video games that feature positive female protagonists, instead of the objectified, sexualized female accessories used in video games. Because many students become interested in technology through video games, it is important to develop games that appeal to a diverse audience.
  • Mentoring and Role Models: “Instead of focusing on the lack of women in STEM, let’s highlight the women who are doing amazing things in STEM,” said Abel Caine, OER Program Specialist, UNESCO. UNESCO plans events all over the world to connect women in STEM.

These are all great starts. I am excited to see what new innovations will be presented at future Tech@State conferences and the progress we can make globally to provide equal opportunity with STEM education. What do you think of these initiatives? Do you know of any innovations that should have been featured at the event?

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