UC Berkeley recently launched the Student Technology Equity Program, or STEP, to provide free hardware and internet access to students in response to COVID-19 and the shift to distance learning.
During the 2020-21 academic year, STEP will supply high-quality laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots, as well as peripherals including noise-canceling headphones and webcams in order to help students succeed in remote classes, according to Jennifer McNulty, project policy analyst for the campus Student Technology Fund. She added that the program received $4.1 million from the UC Berkeley vice chancellor for undergraduate education and the Office of the Chief Information Officer, as well as another $500,000 from the Student Technology Fund.
“The issue that predates COVID around tech, equity and access is so exacerbated with the shift to remote instruction,” McNulty said.
Not being able to participate in a Zoom class because of irregular internet connection or lack of access to a functioning computer can be a “make or break” situation for some students, according to McNulty. She added that receiving free materials could enable them to earn credit and participate in classes.
Previously, students had access to on-campus resources including computer labs, technology lending programs and campus Wi-Fi. However, with UC Berkeley’s infrastructure not readily available during distance learning, helping students with materials is a necessity, McNulty said.
“Technological access directly mirrors the quality of education that can be received during COVID-19,” said Josh Lewis, head of policy for the ASUC academic affairs vice president.
Beyond academics, providing hardware and hot spots will help keep students from using public resources and limit their exposure to COVID-19, according to McNulty.
Additionally, McNulty hopes the technology will help beneficiaries cope with the isolation that comes with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Students will be able to engage more, academically and socially, with their peers if they have access to the tools they need,” McNulty said.
These materials will be granted to applicants based on a variety of factors, including students’ instructional responsibilities, self-reported financial impact due to COVID-19, estimated family contribution from the financial aid office and whether or not students have already received aid from a campus COVID-19 relief center, according to McNulty.
While the priority deadline has passed, applications will remain open throughout the 2020-21 academic year.
Lewis said he thinks STEP is a “great Band-Aid solution” to a greater issue of inequity, but it needs more funding.
“We, as student activists, are going to continue fighting for greater state investment in equity,” Lewis said. “Long term, we would like to see a greater investment from the campus for tech equity at Berkeley.”