How Tech Education Fails Disadvantaged Kids

Teaching where there is no Wi-Fi

Key Takeaways

  • Children in the US face big disparities in access to technology education. 
  • The federal government recently funded a pilot program to use game-development software in computer science education. 
  • One nonprofit assigns a dedicated social support manager to each student when they begin the program.
A teenager using a smart phone to connect with his friends on social media while he waits for the school bus in the winter
Fertnig / Getty Images 

Disadvantaged children in the United States face a vast technology learning gap that nonprofits are trying to fill.

Lack of access to computers, internet access, and tech training leaves many children at a lifelong disadvantage. Nonprofits are working to address this education inequality with programs ranging from training in game development to basic computer use. One example of this kind of program is a new pilot program in Georgia that will use game-development software to teach computer science.

“So many students come from disadvantaged backgrounds that don’t have a chance to learn something like this,” Mete Akcaoglu, a professor of Georgia Southern University whose team received a grant for the program, said in a phone interview. “I’m hoping this will change lives.”

Closing the Gap

The gaps between the technological haves and have-nots is growing and is delineated by poverty. One-in-four teens in households with an annual income under $30,000 lack access to a computer at home one study found, compared with just 4% of those in households earning over $75,000.

Race is also a factor, with 18% of Hispanic teens likely to say they don’t have access to a home computer, compared with 9% of white teens and 11% of black teens.

Graph showing the "homework gap" between different demographics and races
Pew Research Center 

Access to computers and the internet is only the start. Developing computer skills early through classes is key, experts say.

Akacagolu received $300,000 from the National Science Foundation’s for his grant proposal, “Developing and Piloting a Game Design-Based Computer Science Curriculum.” Six teachers in Southeast Georgia middle schools are participating in the pilot program that began in August. The teachers are getting training to use Unity, a cross-platform game engine. 

“We chose Unity not because it’s the easiest to learn, but because it’s a tool that students can use to program real games,” Akacagolu said. “They could actually make a living with the games they will learn in these classes.” 

Teaching the Basics

While coding and programming are valuable skills, many impoverished children need to start by learning the basics of computing, experts say. Robin Stern is the Executive Director of the non-profit Be Better Not Bitter and head instructor for their March4Tech program based in the Atlanta area. He teaches 10-16 year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds the basics of computer technology.

Robin Stern, Executive Director, Be Better Not Bitter, teaches a student about computers.
Robin Stern, Executive Director, Be Better Not Bitter, teaches a student about computers. Emily Kay

“When I say turn on the computer, they push the button on the monitor,” he said in a phone interview. “They don't even have a clue that the box sitting next to the monitor is the computer. I told them to unplug the power from the computer, and they reached around behind the monitor.” 

Grasping Career Skills

Older students often need more than just technical knowledge. NPower, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit, offers tech instruction to underserved young adults at locations around the country. The organization says that 80 percent of the students who enroll in the program end up graduating and the same percentage go on to get jobs or further education.

Executive Director of Instruction, Robert Vaughn, said in a phone interview that the success of the program is due to the fact that they offer more than just technical instruction. The organization assigns a dedicated social support manager to each student when they begin the program, who then connect kids with social support organizations. 

Also essential, he said, are career skills, such as learning how to dress for interviews. “We recognize that our students have had a lot of barriers and a lot of them even face trauma in their life daily” he said.

"So many students come from disadvantaged backgrounds that don’t have a chance to learn something like this."

Alejandro Gonzalez, a former NPower student, credits the program with his current job in technology. During his junior year in high school in Saint Louis, Mo., he thought about going to college, but didn’t want to burden his parents who were already struggling financially with debt. “I always loved to tinker with technology when I was growing up, but I didn’t know anything about it,” he said in a phone interview. 

Gonzalez, now 20, was working as a janitor when he started the Npower program. He took classes in computer basics, but just as important were the professional development skills he was taught, he said. “They would go over what to wear for professional attire,” he added. “Good etiquette, such as what not to bring up at work, you know, like politics. They also taught us how to properly communicate, like writing professional emails to either customers or to other fellow employees.”

He landed a job as a lab technician where he now works. “This is a much better job than I thought I would have a couple of years ago,” he said. “It’s opened up a new world for me.” 

Avoiding the Debt Trap

Low cost or free programs are key to getting more disadvantaged kids tech education, Vaughn said.

“A lot of students in communities that are underserved get some trade training, but they end up in massive debt, I'm talking $50,000 to $100,000 worth of debt,” he added. “And then there are no checks and balances on the actual quality of the education and the competency, so the jobs that they were getting were not necessarily conducive to the salary, or the debt they were producing.”

Shot of a group of university students working on computers in the library at campus
PeopleImages / Getty Images 

Vaughn’s own background informs his approach. He grew up on the south side of Chicago “in a very poor neighborhood,” he said. He dropped out of high school in ninth grade, then later managed to graduate. As a teenage parent “I knew I had to do something because working in telemarketing in the grocery store and fast food wasn't paying the bills,” he said.

He entered a trade school where an entry level IT certification program left him with over $50,000 of debt. “If I had been through a program like NPower where I didn't have that debt, I could have just changed my life that much faster,” he said. He worked his way up to become a network administrator and later branched into consulting for large organizations, including Cisco and GM.

For Vaughn and Gonzalez, getting a technology education wasn’t just a means to a higher wage. It changed their lives.