Digital Literacy and Inclusion: “We Are All In It Together”
All of the organizations I studied for my recent Benton Foundation report recognize that digital literacy, the ability to navigate the Internet, is key to meaningful broadband adoption. But they took different approaches to ensuring their clients have the skills needed to make use of broadband. Computer classes have traditionally been a popular way to provide digital literacy training. More recently, digital inclusion organizations have embraced one-on-one, personalized training approaches for community members in order to be relevant to each person’s everyday life experiences. In addition, several organizations noted that digital literacy is needed and requested by all, regardless of income.
One of the main findings of my research is that digital inclusion organizations have realized that they must connect digital literacy training with relevant content and services. These organizations have developed innovative digital literacy training strategies to assist those who do not feel the Internet is relevant to them as well as those who already understand the importance of the Internet to their everyday lives. Many organizations also provide mobile digital literacy training in which they go outside their physical walls to reach people in places that are convenient to them.
Each organization that participated in this study had a unique approach to offering digital literacy training. Some of the organizations held classes, the traditional way to provide digital literacy training. The classes included basic computer use, how to use Microsoft Office products, how to use e-mail, and so forth. But one of the surprising findings from this study was that a few of the digital inclusion organizations had completely thrown out structured classes as a digital literacy approach. Digital inclusion organizations have embraced one-on-one, personalized training approaches for community members in order to be relevant to each person’s everyday life experiences. Austin Free-Net (AFN) is a great example of an organization that has embraced one-on-one digital literacy training. As Juanita Budd, Executive Director of AFN, explained,
We have trained professionals who can help with training at sites. We partner with roughly 20+ organizations in the community. That includes the city of Austin health and human services neighborhood centers. We have some relationships or partnerships with senior sites. We have partnerships with homeless shelters, and then the very unique thing about us is how we deploy our training.
“What we found out from our clients is they don’t want to sit in a classroom. Most of the people we serve didn’t like school then and don’t like school now. And so, we’re taking a relevancy approach to them. I walk up to a person and say ‘Colin, hi, how can I help you today?’ You’re like, ‘I know how to use a computer. I just want to learn how to [put an attachment in] an e-mail.’ Then your goal is to learn how to use e-mail. There are steps that we can check off that attach those skills to those steps, and Colin has been successful in our lab. Colin may or may not come back ever again, but we offer the opportunity and what we find out is Colin will probably come back, because he needs something else. Then we can facilitate him into a more structured classroom.”
Other organizations, such as Axiom Education and Training Center in rural Maine, have embraced a mobile model of digital literacy training that literally meets students where they are in the community. As Axiom’s Director of Education, Jane Blackwood, explained, her organization partners with public libraries and other community-based organizations that provide open hours to the public and also have a broadband connection. That’s all that’s required.
“It’s the grassroots approach to digital literacy—we bring the classes to the people. Our numbers are high, unusually high for a rural area. If we had held the classes here, we would not have seen the numbers. So take a rural area and what impacts education attainment? It’s time, distance, and travel. And when you strip that away, and there’s an Excel class going on in your downtown, at your library or town office versus an hour away, you’re likely going to take that class. So I think that’s what makes us very unique.”
Target Population: The Unemployed
As the marketplace has increased its demand on employees to have digital literacy skills, more people have come to digital inclusion organizations in need of digital literacy training. Community members who participated in my study understood the value of the free training offered by the digital inclusion organizations.
As one focus group participant at Axiom explained,
“Well, for me, I think, anybody out there needs to be learning how to use computers and to get a high school degree or get a career going. And you know, the place to come is to Axiom because they really help you and you know, in many, many ways so you can get where you need to go. I mean, you know, computers, go to college, or go to get your high school degree. They help you get to what you need to do so you can get a job. They help with all that.”
Target Population: Between AARP Signup and Retirement
Most of the digital inclusion organizations that participated in this study serve a significant population of 50- to 64-year-olds through their broadband adoption programs. This is a group that is not yet ready to retire and is in need of additional training and support to fully adopt broadband. Although home broadband access is increasing for people aged 50 to 64, a significant segment of this population does not have the skills needed to fully participate in our economy.
As one focus group participant at Connecting for Good (CFG), a digital inclusion organization in Kansas City, explained,
“I was … computer illiterate. When I needed a resume for applications … for a job, my children would do it for me. ’Til one day I decided that I needed to learn this for myself. I’ve taken several computer classes, but when you don’t have a computer to work on, you know you lose what you learn. This program has helped me a lot.”
My findings about digital inclusion organizations’ individualized approach supports findings from the ASR Analytics report on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, which found that “patrons receiving training, especially training in digital literacy, responded best to tailored courses that addressed specific tasks and goals, rather than general curricula about broadband technology.” The report goes on to explain, “Teaching students how to perform specific tasks, such as signing up for a broadband connection or searching for a job online, resulted in greater student motivation and achievement. Curricula should be tailored, as needed, to meet the expectations of the community [an organization] serves.”
Perhaps I should stress one point in particular: these organizations I visited provided digital literacy training to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Having a low income is not a requirement for participating in many of the digital literacy training programs that digital inclusion organizations provide.
As Susan Corbett of Axiom Education and Training Center explained,
“Digital literacy is needed and requested by all, regardless of income. I think this is important as technology has evolved around us and we are all in the same place—the need to learn. This is the message we have tried very hard to convey to communities, business leaders, and the adult learners that we work with. It’s okay to admit that you need help; we are all in this together.”
Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives is available at benton.org/broadband-inclusion-adoption-report
Dr. Colin Rhinesmith was a Benton Faculty Research Fellow from 2015-2017.