TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Alex Servello, director of corporate responsibility for Verizon, about Verizon’s Innovative Learning program. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Alex Servello: For almost a decade, Verizon’s actually been involved in education through our Verizon Innovative Learning program, where we’ve brought technology, connectivity and cutting-edge curriculum to Title 1 schools all around the country. And this fall we’re actually expanding to 511 schools in total, and one of the things that we wanted to do with our new platform, Verizon Innovative Learning HQ, was we wanted to take those best practices from those schools and make them available to every educator in the country. What’s interesting is that when we originally started Verizon Innovative Learning it was to address the homework app and not necessarily to address fully remote instruction.

But 93% of the teachers that we surveyed last year in our Verizon Innovative Learning program said that the professional development that they received through Verizon Innovative Learning actually made remote learning easier. So, we were really excited about the opportunity to make that available to every teacher. We have free credentialed professional development that covers everything from how to begin remote learning, how to do hybrid learning, and even things like how do you create an accessible classroom, or how do you address learner variability?

But in addition to all those professional development resources, we’re also bringing teachers cutting-edge augmented and virtual reality experiences. In collaboration with software developers, we’ve actually created immersive learning experiences that are paired with lesson plans so that teachers can actually leverage the technology they now have in their classrooms regardless of what that tech is. If they have basic devices or if they have the newest VR headsets, they are able to actually experience all of that through the Verizon Innovative Learning HQ.

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Karen Roby: I think it’s important to note again here, Alex, that this is not something Verizon is doing in response to the pandemic. This is something you’ve been involved in for a long time.

Alex Servello: Right, absolutely. We’ve been in education for almost a decade, and we really wanted the opportunity to democratize access to all of this cutting-edge technology that is a benchmark of our Verizon Innovative Learning Schools.

Karen Roby: Yeah, and talk a little bit, Alex, more about the digital divide. We know access to technology and opportunities is very different from one school to the next.

Alex Servello: Absolutely. The digital divide existed long before the pandemic and it had long made differences in academic achievement for schools, for those who had access to technology versus those who did not. And what the pandemic really did was it elucidated this idea that if you do not have access to the internet and you do not have a device, you now don’t have access to learning in a remote setting. So, I’m really proud of the fact that we, through Verizon Innovative Learning Schools, made it possible for so many students to have access to the internet and also have access to their school buildings because they no longer had it since they weren’t in the building themselves.

I think moving into the future, there is going to continue to be a need for this sustained work to close the digital divide. Verizon actually has made a commitment to providing 10 million youth with digital skills training by 2030, so the pandemic is by no means the end or the beginning of this work for Verizon. It’s just something that’s really recast our view that this is an important thing for us to do as a technology company, is to ensure that everyone, regardless of their background, regardless of the community that they live in, deserves access to this cutting-edge technology.

Karen Roby: With that lofty of a goal, Alex, expand on that for a little bit, how do you guys plan to make that happen?

Alex Servello: I think Verizon Innovative Learning HQ is going to be a key piece of reaching those students. One of the things that I love about Verizon Innovative Learning HQ is that we leverage our teachers in our Verizon Innovative Learning Schools to work with app developers to actually make experiences that are engaging to teachers, engaging to students. This is just the beginning. We still have many more years to continue to build the site, build even more immersive learning experiences, and really ensure that we’re meeting the most immediate needs of teachers. I can’t say that in five years the needs of schools is going to be the same need that we have right now, but we’re really in a position where we can always respond to the emerging needs.

Karen Roby: Alex, for those who have had a look at this platform or been involved in it, what has been the response so far?

Alex Servello: The platform is launching this August, so although we haven’t had teachers using the platform itself as it exists right now, we have had teachers using components of it. For instance, the Teacher Training Pathways is a component that we developed in partnership with our non-profit partner Digital Promise, where teachers have access to credentialed professional development. And that credentialed professional development really helps teachers learn how to have technology-infused pedagogy, and that’s where we saw teachers say that the professional development really supported them with remote learning.

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What we also have in there is our Design Thinking curriculum that we’ve developed in partnership with Arizona State University, and that curriculum is actually used throughout our Young Men of Color and Rural Young Women programs, and what we’ve seen in those programs is over 90% of students have said that they have increased confidence, increased interest in STEM careers and increased interest in really pursuing even further STEM coursework. We see a lot of evidence that that program and that curriculum is really helping students realize the possibility of STEM. So, we’re excited to not only have those resources for the teachers but also a curriculum that teachers can then give to students to help them explore STEM even further.

Karen Roby: Alex, you seem personally to be very passionate about this platform and about children learning and helping to bridge that gap there with that digital divide. I think that kind of passion is really great to be involved here.

Alex Servello: Thank you. I definitely am passionate about this. I’m a former educator, I’m a former district administrator, and I definitely have seen the effects of the digital divide on students that I’ve worked with. So, I’m really excited to bring this to a national platform and be able to support it moving forward. I think in the future, one of the things that I’m really excited about is that unfortunately the pandemic has brought the digital divide more to the forefront and we’re seeing a significant increase in private/public partnerships. But like I mentioned earlier, that sustainability in moving forward with schools as they have emerging needs is where we’re going to continue to see a need for schools.

We’re going to continue to see that schools will require more of that corporate partnership moving forward. On Verizon’s end, one of the things that we’re really excited about for the future is, as we continue to promote 5G technology, we are actually bringing 5G technology into our schools. Those cutting-edge augmented and virtual reality experiences are really going to benefit from the low latency of 5G, the faster speeds, to enable students to do things like have collaborative virtual reality experiences. We’re really excited about the possibility of that as we continue to build that with our schools.

Karen Roby: I think 5G will certainly help on so many fronts. Alex, we really appreciate you being with us here today and I think it’s so great, will be so great, to follow up with you in, say, six to nine months from now just to see how the program is doing in helping students and teachers alike.

Alex Servello: Absolutely. We’re really excited to continue to learn from teachers as they use the platform and gain their feedback to help build an even better Verizon Innovative Learning HQ.