The Connected Futures Initiative will provide free tablets and internet access to Detroit schools students. Photo via DPSCD Facebook.
The Connected Futures Initiative will provide free tablets and internet access to Detroit schools students. Photo via DPSCD Facebook.

The technology and access will help promote distance learning during the pandemic.

DETROIT, MI — More than 50,000 Detroit students were given tablet-style laptops, complete with free internet access ahead of the school year. 

The tech comes from a $23 million fundraising effort that started in March, according to the Detroit Free Press. Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he’s proud of the project that has been dubbed the Connected Futures Initiative, and of the business community “for stepping up to fill this gap.”

“I’ve worked in a lot of different cities throughout the country in different positions and spaces and I have never seen this kind of sense of urgency and rapid response, and this amount of investment in this short of time before,” Vitti said.

General Motors, DTE Energy, Quicken Loans, and the Kellogg and Skillman foundations partnered with Detroit Public Schools Community District to provide students the kind of online learning experience that is usually reserved for wealthier districts.

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Tech for home and school

Students are receiving 10.1-inch touchscreen iView computers with detachable keyboards and built-in modems that connect to LTE cellular service. The tablets run on Windows 10 software with a suite of the latest programs including Microsoft Teams, a program that allows teleconferencing and online collaboration.

“This is a huge deal,” said Cyrus Peñarroyo. The University of Michigan architecture professor mapped what’s known as digital redlining, a process that leaves many poor neighborhoods without broadband internet access. “It certainly does help, especially because a lot of these students just don’t have the means to access this technology on their own.”

Without wireless service, the devices could be all but useless to the students learning from home. The district says that internet service will be free for six months, then it will work with families to transition them to low-cost monthly plans. 

Vitti says the district will foot the entire bill for families that can’t afford the $12 – $15 monthly bill in order to revolutionize the way the district operates.

“We will see fewer textbooks, we will see fewer workbooks, lighter backpacks,” he said. “I envision students having a laptop or tablet that they use throughout the day. Instead of writing in a notebook, I see them using that laptop throughout the day. I see them bringing it home. I see more assignments and homework linked to online learning.”

When the tablets are at home, they will also give internet access to the entire family that may not have been available before the Connected Futures Initiative. For example, parents can use them to apply for jobs or unemployment benefits, schedule doctor’s appointments for their families, and to communicate with distanced friends and family during the pandemic.

Partners of the Initiative say they wanted to get it right.

“There’s no question that this certainly changes the trajectory of our school-aged children in a city in terms of their ability to learn and advance,” DTE’s Chief Executive Officer Jerry Norcia said. “Our thought was, ‘let’s get it right with DPSCD and make that happen.’ ” 

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