UMASS Boston, Verizon, and Skillsgapp: Department of Commerce $2.97M Grant to Enhance Digital Connections in Minority Communities
UMass Boston has launched a pilot project to increase broadband access and additional services for students and anchor communities with funding from a two-year, $2.97 million grant from the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. UMass Boston is one of 12 schools to receive the NTIA funding designated for Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).
Vice Provost for Research Bala Sundaram and Associate CIO Apurva Mehta conceived the UMass Boston project, Addressing Digital Access Gaps in Education (ADAGE), during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early in the pandemic, the university was able to pivot from traditional classroom instruction to synchronous online classes and implement a Chromebook loaner program. For segments of the student population, though, participating in online learning came with a serious obstacle: a lack of access to high-speed internet.
Sundaram explained: “As a university with majority-minority demographics, the UMass Boston community is disproportionately affected by uneven broadband access. We designed ADAGE to reduce the technology access gaps we saw growing during the pandemic.”
ADAGE’s three-pronged approach includes increasing the university’s capacity to offer hybrid/flexible courses, expanding access to high-speed internet and devices, and exposing students to technology career paths.
“We anticipate highly promising results from ADAGE. This two-year pilot study will give us the opportunity to evaluate just how much impact having access to broadband, computers, Hyflex learning, and introductions to IT career pathways has for our students and anchor communities,” said Mehta.
The university is strengthening the campus technology infrastructure by retrofitting classrooms for synchronous online courses. HyFlex is a solution for driving student success because it offers remote and in-person learning options to the diverse student community. The project goal is to convert 58 classrooms, a third of the classrooms on campus, to support the HyFlex modality. Studies have shown that students in HyFlex classrooms perform as well as their face-to-face peers academically, while also benefiting from having agency in how they learn and participate in their classes.
Through a partnership with Verizon’s Digital Inclusion Program, 200 students will receive a Verizon Jetpack (mobile hotspot device). The students will also receive a Microsoft Surface Go computer, and gamified content created by experts in fields such as app development and information literacy and security.
One hundred families from UMass Boston’s anchor communities will be enrolled in Verizon’s Digital Inclusion Program to receive Jetpacks, too. Participating families will also receive Microsoft Go computers and technical training. Families will be selected with the help of four UMass Boston centers active in the anchor communities: Institute for Asian American Studies, Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Policy, William Monroe Trotter Institute, and Institute for New England Native American Studies.
To create workforce and career pathway awareness, ADAGE will leverage UMass Boston’s professional development courses combined with a broad range of technology skills trainings through platforms such as Skillsgapp, LinkedIn Learning, and Apple’s Everyone Can Code and SWIFT App Development.
These learning opportunities will enhance students’ skills in fields such as coding and create awareness of specific career opportunities. For example, Skillsgapp, accelerates and democratizes workforce development through engaging mobile gameplay. Skillsgapp games, which are available in English and Spanish, provide awareness about careers in cybersecurity by simulating tasks and scenarios that succeed in being informative, at least in part, because they are so entertaining. Practical details about cybersecurity careers, training, and salaries are integrated into the games.
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