Mozilla’s Collaborative Strategy for Engaging Citizens and Building Technology Advocates

By: Leah C. Ruffin

Emerging technologies – artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, machine based learning and internet of things (IoT) devices and initiatives have become slowly embedded into the way we work, live and play. Having access to these technologies and the skills to build and use them are critical. In collaboration with the National Science Foundation, Mozilla aimed to test how a technology company could improve digital skills and support digital creativity in communities across the country.

So began the Gigabit Community Fund initiative, a multi-year partnership with Mozilla and the NSF which was piloted in only five cities across the country – with Lafayette, Louisiana chosen as one of the five cities. Guiding criteria included a widely deployed high-speed fiber network; a developing conversation about digital literacy, access, and innovation;   critical mass of community anchor organizations; an evolving entrepreneurial community; and opportunities to engage K-12 and university school systems. Lafayette, along with Austin, TX; Chattanooga, TN; Eugene, OR and Kansas City KS/MO beat out dozens of other cities to become apart of this effort.

The initiative was designed to test application development on high speed fiber networks that could catalyze education and workforce development efforts in these communities.  Mozilla as a technology company and social enterprise had successfully built and replicated the Hive model in three major metropolitan areas, and thus was an ideal partner to pilot this initiative.

In Lafayette, The Gigabit Community Fund provided catalytic grants – ranging from $10,000 – $30,000 to K12 educators, university professors and researchers, community based and nonprofit organizations and the public school system. Projects involved students creating digital assets and designing and deploying virtual reality environments to students learning and using 4K video equipment to become community journalists and storytellers.

The success of this work involved working closely with university and K-12, economic development advisors, community leaders, high school and college students to translate a technology driven education and workforce development strategy for Lafayette.  Forbes identified six digital trends predicted to transform education in the future, several of which involve emerging technologies that were deployed across the cities involved in the Gigabit Community Fund pilot.

Over the course of the past year, there were many takeaways on challenges and opportunities of tech integration, community-wide digital literacy efforts, and digital equity in practice in community. Several of those takeaways are shared below.

Equity is the foundation for the diverse workforce and entrepreneurs of the future

Data and research consistently speaks to a digital divide for underrepresented communities. Education and workforce development policies, programs and solutions that undergird their efforts with an equity lens are investing in future growth potential of local and regional economies.

We employed an equity based approach in various stages of the process. We worked to ensure racial and gender diversity within the local grant review selection committee, ensured that diverse community organizations were aware of the funding opportunity, and built capacity of applicants and grantee partners by providing increased technical assistance, mentoring and advisement to support strong project outcomes.

For example, in a project led by the Lafayette Parish Public Schools, fifteen 3rd-8th grade teachers were trained on Gigabots – robots embedded with cloud-based coding software that allows students to write code controlling the movement of the robots remotely and in real-time. , and will pilot curriculum embedded with coding and robotics lessons for over 300 students in the 2018-19 school year.  Several teachers are based in schools working with students who do not have at-home internet access.

Cross-sector collaboration is a driver and predictor of future success

Collaboration was built into this initiative by design. For example, applicants were required to include external partners and secure letters of support from proposed external partners. Funding decisions were made by a local advisory committee. Grantee partners participated in monthly meetings to share best practices.  Key partners including representatives from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Lafayette Consolidated Government, One Acadiana, Lafayette Parish Public Schools and other key education, arts and media nonprofit organizations were critical to the advancement of this work.

When new opportunities become available in a community,  it is imperative to identify and convene a diverse group of stakeholders that can collectively discuss and provide recommendations to leverage new resources.   In the example of the district wide implementation of the Gigabots project, local leaders representing business, private foundations, the school system as well as educators themselves were at the table to decide how to create a proposal that would best serve the community.  This resulted in additional funding, formal involvement of industry partners and in-kind technical assistance from the business community which ultimately led to the success of the pilot.

Building capacity is investing in sustainability

According to the New School’s Digital Equity Lab,” access to infrastructure of all kinds, from roads to telephone lines to the Internet, represents one of the most potent ways in which societies divide and discriminate against segments of their populations.”  Infrastructure investments, access and last mile connectivity for broadband provides transformative opportunities for youth and learning.

Take for example the case of the New Hope Community Development of Acadiana.  The majority of the homes surrounding this center – and the students who attend an afterschool program there do not have access to the internet at home.  Through this grant, the center was completely wired with gigabit speed internet, staff were trained on implementation of a coding curriculum, and nearly 20 students successfully learned coding and robotics simultaneously, with several of them indicating an interest in pursuing STEM careers in the future. Many of the students from the New Hope afterschool program will attend school where the Gigabots have been adopted and will be piloted – continuing their exposure and learning to coding and robotics. The New Hope example – working with 100% African American students – demonstrates that investing in infrastructure, programs and staff capacity to serve students in marginalized communities creates a ripple effect.

Overall, Mozilla and the NSF invested over $250,000 in grants and on the ground support to make Lafayette a testbed for seeding emerging technology innovations to produce tangible and sustainable impact in line with regional education and workforce development goals. New pathways for learning have been created, new partnerships formed, and well over 500 future creators were exposed to new ways of learning. The possibilities to continue leveraging this investment are endless.

Learn more about the Gigabit Community Fund efforts in Lafayette here and hear the voices of the community involved in this work.

Special thanks to Anna Osland of One Acadiana and Matt Delcambre with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for their contribution to this op-ed.