North Carolina Central University Trains Digital Equity Leadership in Durham

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, December 5, 2022

Digital Beat

North Carolina Central University Trains Digital Equity Leadership in Durham

Grace Tepper

Durham, North Carolina, is a thriving digital equity ecosystem supported by a network of community anchor institutions working to close the digital divide. North Carolina Central University (NCCU), a historically black university (HBCU) in Durham, is committed to diversity in and access to higher education through its motto "Truth and Service." The university has long understood that access to digital tools is a crucial part of empowering its students and its community. That is why North Carolina Central University applied for, and recently won, a Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The support will help NCCU address the lack of broadband access, connectivity, adoption, and equity at the university and surrounding anchor communities. NCCU’s combination of innovative digital inclusion initiatives and established community partnerships makes it an invaluable force in closing the city's digital divide.

According to the North Carolina Department of Information Technology's Broadband Adoption Index, 10 percent of households in Durham County did not have internet access and 25 percent did not have a broadband internet subscription as of 2019. Fifteen percent of the county lives in poverty.

“Durham is a really interesting place," said Jon Gant, the dean of NCCU’s School of Library and Information Sciences. “We sit here in the Research Triangle Park between all three of these cities. It's a community that is very focused on research and education coupled with a very strong tech community. There is a really diverse economy.”

The Research Triangle describes the metropolitan region of North Carolina formed by Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. There are a total of 12 colleges and universities and eight community colleges in the Triangle Region, and it is a space of abundant growth and opportunity fueled by its numerous institutions of higher education. NCCU, in Durham, is right in the middle of it.

NCCU's surrounding community is emblematic of the inequities of the segregated South, systemic inequities that are still present today and influence technology adoption trends in Durham.

“We still see that bifurcation in the economy, with these great jobs that are coming into some areas with some of the most entrenched poverty in the country,” said Dean Gant. "Some neighborhoods could be a million miles away from each other, and different in terms of their history."

The North Carolina Broadband Adoption Index has a wealth of information about the variations in broadband access and adoption in Durham, down to the census tract level. It also gives each tract a "Broadband Adoption Potential score" which encompasses a host of factors, including, but not limited to, the percentage of households with broadband access, the percentage with a broadband subscription, the percentage with computer devices, and the percentage in poverty. According to the index, census tracts in Durham with Broadband Adoption Potential scores of 22 percent (meaning low adoption, low affordability, low access to devices, and high poverty) border tracts with scores of almost 70 percent, indicating the near opposite just blocks away.

“That’s the context in which we work, said Grant. “NCCU is in a part of Durham that was segregated. So when we look at the digital divide, there are neighborhoods where there are still census tracts with high levels of poverty coupled with high levels of lack of computer use and adoption. There's a divide when you break it down by race––and also when you break it down by age––that's pretty significant."

NCCU has gained national recognition from the Carnegie Foundation as a community-engaged university. The university is well aware of the unmet needs of its students and members of its greater community. Given the stark digital divide surrounding NCCU, and the university's dedication to service, it is no surprise that it has long been engaging in digital equity initiatives in Durham which are making an impact.

The university is part of Digital Durham, a National Digital Inclusion Alliance-affiliated collaborative that promotes digital inclusion throughout the city by advocating for reliable, affordable internet access and computing devices, along with digital literacy training. Since 2016, Digital Durham has been working to align digital equity programs in the community, collect data on Durham's digital divide, increase educational and advocacy opportunities regarding digital inclusion in Durham and North Carolina, and provide professional development for its member organizations.

In September 2022, NCCU launched the North Carolina Shared Research & Education collaborative infrastructure (NCShare) with Davidson College, Duke University, and MCNC (a nonprofit that owns and operates the North Carolina Research and Education Network). Funded with a $1.4 million award by the National Science Foundation, NCShare aims to provide high-speed research network capacity, support high-performance computing, and boost STEM education to at least eight minority-serving, smaller, or mid-sized institutions of higher education throughout North Carolina.

On October 5, 2022, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration awarded NCCU a Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program grant of almost $3 million to launch the NCCU Digital Equity Leadership Program (DELP-Durham). 

An “anchor community” is any area that is not more than 15 miles from an HBCU, a Tribal College or University, or a Minority-serving institution, and has an estimated median annual household income of not more than 250 percent of the poverty line.

NCCU is employing its resources, capabilities, and expertise in digital literacy and extensive reach into the community to develop innovative ways to help residents in Durham's anchor communities who may lack the digital literacy skills needed to seek, obtain, and retain employment, as well as to perform other tasks in daily life. Community-based partners involved in DELP-Durham include Digital Durham and the Kramden Institute, the Durham Public Schools Foundation, the Triangle Non-Profit & Volunteer Leadership Center, as well as the Durham County Library. NCCU has also partnered with Momentum Learning to provide competency-based training in coding.

Essentially, the program is structured under four core activities: digital equity assessment and planning; digital equity training; community engagement and service; and evaluation.

NCCU and Digital Durham will conduct an assessment of digital equity needs related to online education, digital inclusion, workforce, and digital skills development in the anchor communities in Durham. NCCU will also address data equity issues and develop a map-based data repository with publicly available data about broadband access and the digital divide to support this assessment.

The digital equity training portion is a multi-organization collaboration consisting of interrelated activities to serve the needs of the qualified anchor communities in Durham. NCCU is partnering with the Kramden Institute and the Triangle Neighborhood Volunteer Leadership Center to provide educational programs, using NCCU's computer labs and learning spaces for training as well as computer labs in community centers and public housing and mobile labs.

Through the mobile labs, Gant said, members of anchor communities can access devices, Wi-Fi hotspots, and mobile educational programs. This enables access to many digital tools like online banking, telehealth appointments, and employment opportunities. There is also office space for people to do private and professional job interviews. NCCU will also partner with other community anchor institutions, like faith-based institutions, to run events and programming where needed.

“NCCU’s great because we have a very open university to our surrounding community and we have a great reputation within our town," said Gant, who is leading the DELP-Durham initiative. "It's easy to invite folks to come to campus, but we're going to get out to even be closer to where people live, to be able to provide the training and support.”

The university is also collaborating with the Durham County Library and the Durham Public Schools Foundation to scale up digital navigator services to residents from eligible anchor communities. NCCU will provide students with the resources to serve its community through volunteering and community engagement to expand experiential learning and workforce development. As part of this, NCCU is taking students from its library and information science, education, social work, and computer science and information systems programs and developing a model to train students with the skills to train other navigators. The navigator program will be fully credentialed, and will train both students and "anyone who wants to learn," Gant said.

“It's central to get students and faculty out into our neighboring community," Gant said. “One of the things that I've learned is to be a good steward and always work with the community. Not directing from the academia to the community, but with the community.”

NCCU's mission statement says that the institution will “prepare students to become global leaders and practitioners who transform communities.”

NCCU is partnering with Momentum Learning to provide software engineering, quality assurance engineering, and digital foundations for business and entrepreneurship courses and provide employment placement services in collaboration with companies. This enables people to participate in the growing technology sector in the Research Triangle, especially those looking to switch careers.

The university's Office of Community Engagement and Services will also partner with Triangle Nonprofit and Volunteer Leadership Center on outreach initiatives to expand opportunities to deepen the digital capabilities of supporting organizations in the qualified anchor community neighborhoods.

Through all of these interconnecting programs, NCCU and its partners hope to expand employment opportunities, train digital navigators, and help deepen the digital capabilities of residents and organizations in Durham's anchor communities.

Since the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program grant was announced, NCCU has wasted no time. The university is hiring 12 full-time staff members to help implement DELP-Durham and is in the process of procuring all the necessary equipment and devices. As for the curriculum for its digital navigator training and educational programs, Gant said there is already a lot of programming set up with community partners which is a big advantage.

The DELP-Durham curriculum draws from successful initiatives in Durham's current digital equity sphere as does NCCU's outreach programs to raise awareness of what it is doing. The university is working with Durham's library and school systems to reach students and parents who may benefit from DELP-Durham through multilingual awareness campaigns. NCCU's Office of Community Engagement and Service is well-connected to the community and is helping to set up outreach programs.

Evaluation of the program is a key step in DELP-Durham's work. First, the evaluation will examine the program implementation process to determine whether it is operating as intended. This will be achieved by measuring program activities and outputs to determine what was accomplished. Secondly, the evaluation will critically examine the program to identify strengths and challenges to implementation to improve the program and, ultimately, ensure program effectiveness.

Erezi Ogbo—Assistant Professor in Information Science at NCCU and Director of Data, Assessment, and Evaluation for DELP-Durham—said success in digital equity initiatives can be measured in a variety of ways. One important to DELP-Durham, in particular, is employment opportunity and economic mobility.

"Income is one of the key factors that we should see a change in," she said. "If you have digital equity in a community, then we should see things like employment rates going up. People should be able to not just be connected, but be able to use the connection to get jobs. You should also see the median income going up. It's not just getting jobs, but getting good jobs and being able to bring home better pay."

Gant said, “We're seeing, because of the level of poverty in certain neighborhoods, there are high levels of negative impacts from that with a greater proportion of folks with poor health conditions, environmental justice issues, and chronic unemployment. Those are things that we have to try and address. And that's why our focus is really on not only gaining [digital] skills, but helping to develop the skills to make a shift in those very particular types of outcomes.”

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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