In 2008, I worked with a small team of volunteers to launch the nonprofit Community Technology Network, whose mission is to transform lives through digital literacy. It was the beginning of the Great Recession, and those around me thought I was crazy for doing so, considering the economic situation in the country, but I saw a need and was passionate about making a difference.
I had recently moved from New York City, where I co-managed 27 computer centers that served thousands of people monthly. It was through this work that I first heard the term digital divide and saw firsthand how people were being affected by their lack of access to the Internet, and more importantly, their lack of technological skills.
From Paper to Online Applications
My job was to teach adults basic and intermediate computer skills so they could find and apply for jobs. My students ranged from professionals who had been laid off after September 11 to those who had never used a computer before. In 2003, the transition from filling out paper job applications to completing them online was in full gear. Companies saw the benefits of requiring people to email their resumes or complete online applications.
I hadn’t paid much attention to what this transition meant for my students until an afternoon when one came in looking for help. There was a new grocery store being built across the street in Harlem, and she was interested in applying for a job there. She had stopped by to ask for an application, and they had directed her to their website. I thought this would be no problem; since she was in my class, her resumé was saved on the server. It would just be a matter of copying and pasting her information into the form. If only it were that easy. For nearly an hour, she struggled to apply, but the never-ending psychological questions derailed her. She had to catch a bus, so was not able to submit her application that day, and there was no way to save the application as a draft.
It was that day I realized just how important digital literacy was in acquiring a job. If people were now required to use a computer to apply for low-skilled jobs such as janitorial, housekeeping, or shelf stocking, something had to be done to help the millions of people who lack digital skills.
Technology Is Everywhere
Not only is it important for people to learn how to use the computer for employment, but technology has become integral to nearly everything that we do. Here are a few examples of how we use technology in our daily lives:
- Helping patients communicate efficiently with their doctors, potentially lowering costs
- Enabling parents to engage with their children’s teachers and be more involved in their education
- Decreasing the chance of isolation for older adults and people with disabilities
- Empowering us all to be lifelong learners by utilizing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other online tutorials
But these activities are only accessible by those who have access to the Internet, a device and digital skills. A recent report by Pew Internet shows that only 78% of people who earn less than $30,000 a yearly have home Internet access. Of households with less than a high school diploma, only 54% have Internet access at home.
With the high school dropout rate being as high as 42 percent and an under-resourced adult education system, we can expect that the need for digital literacy will only continue to grow. We see young people who only know how to use the Internet with their smartphones and who say those are their preferred tools for doing homework. Can you imagine typing an entire paper using just your thumbs? This is the preferred method only because these students haven’t learned how to use anything else. Without computer knowledge, how will they fare in college or in the workforce?
Digital Inclusion Is Everyone’s Job
In order to bridge the digital divide, we need to integrate digital inclusion into all aspects of human services work. I recently met a volunteer for a local nonprofit that helps people in poverty with basic needs, such as food, clothing, and utility bills. He was soliciting donations, but with only one dollar in my purse, I asked for the web address so I could go online to do research and possibly make a more substantial donation. He replied that the organization didn’t have a website because the people they serve didn’t use the Internet. This nonprofit’s lack of an online donation system lost them my financial support; and their lack of vision for using the power of technology is causing losses for their community. Instead of pushing technology away when our community isn’t connected, we should be doing everything in our power to get them connected.
While I am encouraging the nonprofit sector to integrate digital literacy into their programming, I also understand well the difficulties involved, especially in funding these efforts. It has been a struggle persuading foundations to fund our technology costs, let alone support the cost of building staff capacity to offer technology training.
Luckily, our country’s economic situation has improved since 2008, and more attention is being drawn to this issues. We’ve had billions of federal dollars spent to increase both access to broadband and digital literacy training through the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP). States like California have made funds available to provide connectivity and digital literacy in low-income housing developments. And NTEN recently launched their Digital Inclusion Fellowship program, which provided 16 Fellows to 8 cities to increase access to the Internet and digital literacy training. These are a few of the many forward thinking programs addressing the need in some way.
Within the digital divide exists a huge opportunity for social change. We know the Internet has the power to teach, connect, and inspire. Let’s put this power into the hands of every man, woman, and child. The sooner they learn to fish, the sooner they will feed themselves and their families.