The global pandemic has transformed the digital divide into a chasm that, according to Southwest Tennessee Community College President Dr. Tracy D. Hall, must be addressed now. “We can no longer just talk about this persistent problem,” Hall said. “We must do something about it. Online learning requires access to technology and when our students lack access, we are duty-bound to bridge this gap.”
When Southwest polled its students earlier this spring, about 1 in 3 students who responded indicated they do not have a laptop or PC at home. When the pandemic forced the college to move 100 percent of its course offerings online this past spring, the digital divide seemed larger than ever. Southwest took immediate action, purchasing 3,500 laptops to expand its loaner program this fall. “With the pandemic still surging, the majority of our classes will be delivered online again in the fall, so we increased the number of devices for students ten-fold to meet this challenge head-on,” Hall said. “We are reimagining teaching and learning and everything we do to address this moment in history and be there for our students.”
The laptop loan program is just one of the ways Southwest is reimagining everything it does to promote student success, address disparities and fuel upward social and economic mobility. The college has an impressive footprint with seven area locations and is exploring ways to make the internet available to its students free of charge by extending its WIFI to reach parking lots surrounding its facilities in Memphis so that students and area residents who lack internet access at home can get online. “Internet access has never been more critical and our foundation is applying for grants and seeking out partnerships that will enable us to extend internet access to those who need it and will benefit from it most,” Hall said.
This simple, yet imaginative approach to bridging the digital divide is a shining example of what can be achieved when leaders pursue equity and social justice as their north star. “More than 95 percent of our students live and work in Shelby County and remain here after they graduate,” Hall said. “As the community’s college, we are well-positioned to make even more of a positive impact in Memphis and the Mid-South as we move forward and eventually recover from the pandemic.”
The community can support these initiatives and power the good as a Southwest Tennessee Community College Foundation partner or supporter at www.southwest.tn.edu/foundation/OnlineGivingOpen.htm.
Note: This column was written and submitted by Daphne J. Thomas, Executive Director of Communications, Marketing and Community Relations for Southwest Tennessee Community College, as an opportunity to highlight their response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic and how they continue to power the GOOD in our community.