Digital Equity and Adult Education

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, March 1, 2024

Weekly Digest

Digital Equity and Adult Education

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of February 26-March 1, 2024

Zoë Walker

Strong partnerships and innovative community solutions are key for organizations looking to advance adult education opportunities using upcoming Digital Equity Act funds. This was the message of Digital Equity Champions for All Learners: Preparing Adult Education, a webinar hosted by the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology (OET) in partnership with the Coalition on Adult Basic Education (COABE) and World Education. The webinar, part of a series on the subject in advance of the COABE National Conference later this month, featured a number of “possibility models” of successful and replicable strategies for closing the digital access divide. In each model, coalition-building and sustainable partnerships were crucial to maintaining digital inclusion work.


Now is the Time to Prepare for Digital Equity Funding Opportunities

Grace Tepper

The webinar emphasized the upcoming Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program, administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) under the Digital Equity Act. The Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program’s $1.25 billion will fund annual grant programs for five years to implement digital equity projects. A wide range of entities are eligible for these grants; however, the specific state agencies developing each State Digital Equity Plan will be receiving funding under the Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program to execute their plans, and, therefore, not eligible for Competitive Grant funding.

“It's really critical for the education sector, including the adult education sector, to get involved with this opportunity,” said Ji Soo Song, the Digital Equity Advisor at OET.

The Notices of Funding Opportunity (NOFOs) for the Capacity Grant Program and the Competitive Grant Program have not yet been released by NTIA. Shirley Doan, Senior Education Advisor at World Education, expects the Competitive Grant NOFO to be released between June and September of this year. Once the Competitive Grant NOFO is released, organizations will have up to 60 days to submit applications for support.

According to Doan, participating in the Competitive Grant program is a great opportunity for any organization doing digital inclusion work that serves one of the eight covered populations identified by Congress in the Digital Equity Act.

During the panel, Doan discussed ways in which NTIA may decide to structure its awards.

We think NTIA is likely to award large grants to national, statewide, and regional collaborative efforts. And if this is the case, then a backbone organization could receive the award, be the fiscal administrator, and then redistribute that funding to other partners, including all the smaller organizations who need a little bit more capacity or other forms of support to do the work.

While much is still unknown about how the Competitive Grants will shake out, panelists stressed the importance of organizations starting now to plan to maximize this funding, and with whom they are going to get this done.

“We're not going to know some major details until the NOFO is released,” said Doan. “Either way, we believe that strong partnerships and strong coalitions are going to be critical to being competitive and successful for this grant as well as innovative models that serve our adult learners.”

How Partnerships Drive Adult Education Efforts

Dr. Charles Roessel is the President of Diné College, the first tribally-controlled collegiate institution in the US. Diné College serves primarily Navajo students in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Diné is a rural college, and 82 percent of students stay in the community after graduation.  

During the webinar, Dr. Roessel talked about the “unique breadth of partnerships” that Diné has and emphasized the need for a holistic approach to education through engaging the ecosystem around an anchor institution like Diné College.

“If you're going to focus on your students, you really need to focus on the community because they're also going to be there,” said Roessel

This line of thinking prompted Diné to introduce the School of Transformation, a non-degree school focused on upskilling and career readiness. Dr. Roessel said that starting this new school required Diné to shift from focusing on primarily educational partnerships and start making new partnerships with industries.

Dr. Roessel spoke about the impact of one such partnership. The college used to spend $800,000 a year on broadband, but by working with internet service providers, creating partnerships, and working with a coalition, the school was able to reduce the cost by more than half.

So there are things that I think come out of this when you start looking at some of these opportunities that are in front of you to think about things, not just about today, but where you want to be years down the road.

Luis Quiñones, Deputy Vice President of Adult Education and Workforce Development at UnidosUS, echoed the importance of the holistic approach to education and the community. Since 2009, UnidosUS has run Padres Comprometidos, a Spanish-language digital literacy program focused on educational technology. The goal of the program, Quiñones said, is to engage Latino parents and help them to understand the education system in the United States. Parents who have completed the program are better able to communicate with teachers, advocate for their children, and be more involved in their students’ educational journeys. This empowerment of the parents leads to better outcomes for the children.

UnidosUS also runs the Latinos at Work program, a workforce development program. After the program launched in 2019, UnidosUS quickly started getting feedback that participants needed even more foundational digital skills training. Unidos started engaging with communities and found that there were no foundational digital skills trainings in Spanish.

In response, Unidos developed the Digital Skills for Life program—a 20-hour foundational digital literacy program, available in both English and Spanish. The program is now available through 30 UnidosUS grantees.

Skye Downing, the Digital Equity Programs & Partnership Director at Community Tech Network (CTN), also emphasized the importance of providing digital skills resources in people’s native languages. CTN’s digitalLIFT program helps nonprofits to promote digital equity in their communities. To date, digitalLIFT has partnered with 94 agencies nationwide and enrolled 300 trainers. The program focuses on providing a culturally proficient curriculum. digitalLIFT translates to seven languages in-house, and partners with an outside translation house on an as-needed basis.

Downing stressed the importance of both designing a culturally inclusive curriculum and having instructors who are familiar with the community they serve.

“You want your instructor or digital navigator to not only speak the same language, but it's also beneficial if they come from the same community as your learners, as they better know the culture and will have the relatable lived experience necessary to honor the learners in their journey,” she said.

Luis Quiñones closed by telling the story of a woman named Gloria, who was hired as a teacher assistant and then found out she needed to have digital skills for her position. Gloria went through the Digital Skills for Life training, and was able to gain the confidence and skills to keep her job.

“That's what I'm talking about,” Quiñones said. “We need to have that kind of impact in partnerships.”

Adult Education and Digital Equity

Digital Equity Champions for All Learners demonstrated the power of partnership in building sustainable digital equity programs for adult education. There are countless adult learners that can be reached through the influx of funding the Digital Equity Act has laid before the States, and adult education leaders are critical to the effort to reach them. Successful state digital inclusion strategies are likely to engage and rely on partnerships and coalition-building to ensure this work is built to last.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

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Mar 5—2024 INCOMPAS Policy Summit (INCOMPAS)

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