Closing the Tech Gap—One Phone Call at a Time
To ensure as many students as possible can complete their AP studies, College Board teams and partners have worked to get technology into the hands of those who need it most
Colleen Meidt picked up the phone. This time, it was Kevin on the other end of the line. Like everyone else Meidt has spoken to in the past few weeks, Kevin had told College Board he needed serious help if he hoped to take his AP Exam. (Kevin’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.) The call didn’t get off to a happy start.
After confirming Kevin was registered to take the AP Computer Science Principles Exam, Meidt, a lead customer care specialist at College Board, asked if he had access to a computer. Although most AP Exams this year can be taken using a mobile device as well as a laptop or desktop computer, Computer Science Principles students must submit a portfolio, and that requires a computer. Kevin didn’t have one. Using a tracker built by College Board to identify district responses to the coronavirus, Meidt checked if Kevin could get a laptop through his school. Bad news. He couldn’t.
Kevin quickly moved from hope to disappointment, a now-familiar emotional swing for many young people this spring. After spending months preparing for his AP Exam, typically taken in school in May, the coronavirus outbreak closed Kevin’s school. Like many students, he wasn’t sure at first whether he could even take an AP Exam this year. But after more than 90% of surveyed students indicated they still wanted to take the exam—pandemic or no pandemic—College Board announced on March 20 that it would administer exams at home in an online format. Disappointment turned to hope until Kevin realized he wouldn’t be able to submit his Computer Science Principles portfolio without a computer. So he reached out to College Board through a webpage for students who needed help getting online for the exam. All was not lost.
Learning he couldn’t get a laptop through his school sounded like the end of the line. But that’s when Meidt told Kevin he was eligible to get a free laptop from Amazon, which has committed to providing 4,000 Chromebooks for AP Computer Science students. (The online retailer, in 2018, pledged $50 million to support access to AP computer science courses.) Kevin’s disappointment turned into relief. But when Meidt explained the Chromebook was his to keep, Kevin became excited. “You’re giving it to me? For real?” he asked. Meidt had to pause. “It took everything in me to not get too emotional.”
Kevin’s story is representative of the experience Meidt and others in the 73-member team of customer care specialists have had reaching out to more than 14,000 students, parents, and educators who contacted College Board because they were unsure they had the technology required to take this year’s AP Exams. Those specialists, drawn from teams across College Board, are key players in the organization’s ongoing effort to ensure students have access to the tools necessary get online and keep learning.
The first step in each call that’s made is determining the student’s needs and how best to meet them. In many cases, that means identifying resources that are already close at hand—often a mobile device. Almost all AP Exams this year can be taken using a smartphone, which most students have access to more readily than a computer. According to a Pew survey, 95% of all American teenagers and 93% of teens from families with incomes below $30,000 have access to smartphones. Taking a test on a phone sounds like a less-than-ideal experience. But as pointed out by Tierney Kraft, College Board senior director of College and Career Access, most students won’t actually take the test that way. Instead, they’ll read the prompts on their devices and complete the test on paper. Then they’ll use their phone to take photos of that written work and upload the photos at the end of the exam.
For the few AP Exams that require a computer, such as Computer Science Principles, or for students who lack a reliable internet connection, customer care specialists look to local resources that can provide technology solutions faster and more easily. Communities and companies nationwide have offered aid and assistance in this time of crisis. In the past few weeks, for instance, New York City schools purchased 300,000 iPads for students, while Boston public schools are distributing 20,000 laptops to students. Many of the major cable companies are providing free internet for students. College Board Customer Care Senior Director Michele Feisel says much of the work her colleagues are doing is helping students find their way to whatever help exists locally. In some ways, customer care specialists are acting like school counselors, using their expertise to connect students to resources. These connections have proven to be the most powerful tool for getting students the access they need to prepare for and take AP Exams.
Amazon has committed to to providing 4,000 Chromebooks for AP Computer Science students who need them to complete their AP exams
Not all students will have the resources they need locally to take their AP Exams online, however, so College Board and its partners will provide them directly. Some people, like Kevin, will get to keep the Chromebook Amazon is giving to AP Computer Science Principles students who need them. Others will receive a laptop or tablet provided at no cost for a two-month loan period through a partnership between College Board and Staples—enough time to finish the academic year and study for and take their AP Exams. In regions where there’s no residential internet, students normally depend on public libraries and schools to get online. With schools and libraries closed, students need a way to get online. College Board is identifying partners, including T-Mobile, to send hotspot devices to students so they can get online.
“Reliable, affordable broadband internet seems like critical infrastructure for so many of us, but it’s still lacking for millions of families across the country,” says Stefanie Sanford, chief of Global Policy and External Relations at College Board. “Especially in rural areas, a lot of students can’t access online learning because they simply can’t access internet. I think we’re all attacking that problem with new urgency.”
A crucial link in this chain is teachers, and Feisel’s team has also responded to hundreds of educators. Most wanted to know how they could get their most vulnerable students access to the AP Exam, but dozens of educators just wanted to tell College Board they were eager to help—even offering to lend out their personal devices. Thanks to the commitment of College Board partners, that sacrifice hasn’t been necessary. But those offers are a testament to the extraordinary selflessness and caring of so many teachers and school counselors.
Despite the best of efforts, it must be acknowledged that help might not reach every student. A recent survey of educators revealed that more than one-fifth of students haven’t been participating in remote learning since schools were closed. A lack of digital access is one of the reasons some students are not engaging with teachers online. Other reasons include the need to take care of younger siblings or help in other ways at home.
This global crisis has upended the lives of nearly every person on Earth, but it’s been cruelest to the most vulnerable. It’s more critical than ever that students are provided with the tools and access they need to keep learning. One phone call at a time, if need be.
“All of this is in response to what our students wanted and needed right now,” says Sanford. “In the middle of this huge disruption, with all kinds of new stress in their lives, students told us they want to finish what they started. They want to keep learning, to have the chance to take an exam and show their knowledge. This work has shown, yet again, the strength and determination of young people.”