'Not just playing catch-up': These programs give under-resourced students tomorrow's technology now

What if one day any student in Mogadishu, Somalia, had the same educational resources as a student in Greenwich, Conn.? What if an under-resourced student in Cleveland could do that today? Those are two of the near and far-off future goals of the founders of the nonprofit Movers and Shakers NYC and of the Verizon Innovative Learning initiative. Leaders of both organizations stopped by the BUILD Series to share how they think this can come to pass.

"Everything for us is about putting the technology of tomorrow into the hands of the communities that [typically] get it last," said Glenn Cantave, one of the cofounders of Movers and Shakers.

Likewise, Verizon has been involved in giving schools both access to technology and guidance on how best to use it through Verizon Innovative Learning since it launched in 2012. The program has 152 middle schools participating, with around 84 percent of the students eligible for lunch assistance.

Verizon Innovative Learning first began bridging the digital divide — the gap between those who do and don't have access to high-speed internet and digital technology — simply by providing tablets and data plans to every student in its schools, along with training for their teachers. But just as the technology has advanced at a rapid pace, the methods to solve this issue have changed too.

"Our goal is to add 200 more schools over the next two years, 100 of which will have 5G," said Justina Nixon-Saintil, Verizon's Director of Corporate Social Responsibility. Some of those schools now also have Innovation Labs with more advanced equipment. "We're bringing cutting-edge technology to labs that we create in the schools where students have access to [augmented reality], [virtual reality], internet of things, wearables, 3D printers. Our goal is to really move our students forward, not just play catch-up; [to] make sure that they have access to all of the new technologies, so that they have the skills that will prepare them for the future workforce."

To that end, Verizon also teamed up with NYC Media Lab for the 5G EdTech Challenge last year.

"We knew that we didn't want to just bring the access, we wanted to make sure that we had content and solutions that really harness the power of 5G," Nixon-Saintil said.

That's how Movers and Shakers, along with nine other teams, got involved. Cantave explained that their initial proposal was to use augmented reality to create "digital monuments" that would memorialize historical figures beyond the Eurocentric statues that currently dominate most landscapes. What they wound up creating for classroom use is "Unsung," an AR experience that allows students to learn about four iconic black female singers of different eras — Beyoncé, Odetta Holmes, Ella Sheppard and Nina Simone.

"We wanted to dive deep into stories that you may not know about that can bring up other aspects of the black experience," said Cantave on why they chose those subjects for a program intended for middle school English class. "These are singers that have been fighting for social change. You can see the different dynamics in terms of the challenges that they faced and what we face today."

But, of course, this is no mere video or textbook. Because they're using 5G internet, the graphics are very high quality and the experience is responsive to students' natural curiosity. It's a huge leap, especially for kids who wouldn't otherwise have computers or high-speed internet at home, but this generation is apparently fearless when it comes to new tech.

"The kids just took it and ran," Movers and Shakers co-founder Idris Brewster said of test groups of students. "They knew what six degrees of freedom is — when you're [able to go] up and down and run around, like the world is yours, basically."

The goal is that with immersive experiences like these, kids will be more engaged in all kinds of subjects while also becoming comfortable with advanced technology.

"The feedback that we got from [teachers] was that ['Unsung'] is culturally relevant, and that's something that's missing in a lot of our classrooms today," Nixon-Saintil said. "For the students we reach through our program, these are the types of solutions that will really make a difference for them."

The plan is to roll out "Unsung" to select VIL middle school classrooms next fall. But that's only the beginning. Cantave, Brewster and Nixon-Saintil all believe that, just as the internet turned our computers into the world's greatest library, newer technology can adapt to individual students' learning differences while also breaking down economic and geographic barriers to education.

"The technology is getting better, to where kids can choose their own adventure," Brewster said. "Kids being able to collaborate with each other across the globe, wherever they're at, really frees the reins on education ... I think democratizing that for any kid to access is powerful and is a good way to create create a lot of impact."

This article was paid for by Verizon Innovative Learning and created by Yahoo Lifestyle’s branded content team. The Yahoo Lifestyle editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.