In May 2015, NTEN and Google Fiber launched the Digital Inclusion Fellowship, a new national program investing in local communities and nonprofit organizations to address the digital divide. Sixteen Fellows comprised the first cohort; and they shared their work in progress earlier this year. We asked Sarah Bell to give us an update on her work with Literacy Kansas City.
Where do you want the digital inclusion conversation in Kansas City to go in the next 5 years?
I would love for the digital inclusion conversation in Kansas City to move toward a better understanding of how we can best use technology to assist those who have learning disabilities or low literacy skills.
Throughout my time as a Fellow, I have realized that I bring an important voice to conversations about digital inclusion because of the additional obstacle low literacy poses to accessing digital information. For example, I recently learned about examples of low literate mobile phone users employing technology originally designed for visually impaired users, such as text that is read aloud. There are so many great resources available online, but we must start incorporating tools that take into consideration those who struggle with reading. We need to use more videos, have less text-heavy websites, write using accessible reading levels, and have more texts that are read aloud.
As we continue to bridge the digital divide and make digital inclusion a reality for everyone, we cannot forget that there is still a population who will need additional assistance to access the digital world, and we must ensure we are providing the appropriate tools and websites to best assist them.
When you think of what your community has accomplished this year, what are you most proud of?
I am really proud of the work we have done turning our computer lab into a public community space. It has always been a space for our students to use, but now we have community members, volunteers, and partner agencies using our lab on a daily and weekly basis. Since opening up the lab, I have seen individuals working toward their online high school diploma, researching information to prepare for an interview, completing their taxes, and even acquiring a patent for an invention!
Every Friday morning, we have a job training organization use our lab to run a basic computer skills class for their students. We also provide assisted computer lab hours each week that provide individualized guidance to help students and community members with any digital-related tasks. Over the course of this past year, our lab has transitioned into a safe, comfortable space in our organization, where students feel supported, are eager to learn, and know they will get the assistance they need.
What is something that you have struggled with and overcome/learned from?
Knowing where to start digital literacy work when working with low literate adults has been a challenge. When the Fellowship began, we started out way too advanced for most of our students, or we did not do a good job of incorporating relevancy into the digital programs. It was hard to know the best way to get our students using and interested in digital activities. We kept trying different programs, but nothing seemed to resonate with our students. Then, a presentation I went to on digital inclusion gave me a better awareness of how to frame what we are doing. In that talk, the presenter mentioned four facets of digital inclusion work—access, digital training and tech support, devices, and public computing lab—and that you need all four to be successful. I realized that we have three of the four parts, but we don’t provide access. Without access at home to replicate the skills they learned in class, I realized that students were less inclined to want to learn new digital skills.
Additionally, we realized that our literacy classes could be more successful if we increased the amount of digital work in them, but we couldn’t do that without potentially making it a burden for many of our students because they do not have access at home. We knew access at home provided a benefit to students’ success in class, because those who had it were able to participate in our online program, Reading Plus. The more lessons they did, the more progress they made.
Seeing the academic strides these students were making when they had access as well as gaining the awareness that access was a missing part of our work was important for me to understand how to move forward. My focus has become getting students connected. Whether it’s through hotspots we lend them, or tapping into the numerous options that are becoming available in Kansas City, I am excited to see the changes we can make if we get more students connected.
What were you surprised by in your digital inclusion work?
I was surprised that digital work is so often separated from literacy instruction. That not all of our students saw or understood the relevancy of having digital skills. Or, that they put digital on the bottom of their priority list. One of the phrases I heard over and over again during my time as a Fellow is that digital inclusion is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. A utility. We are living in a society that uses technology for everyday tasks—not just as a convenience, but sometimes as the only option for filling out forms or accessing information. Teaching reading and writing cannot only be pen and paper anymore. While that is obviously an important part of literacy instruction, it can’t be separated out from the digital training.
How have you grown this year?
Before this year of working in digital inclusion work, I didn’t realize the full effects of people not being digitally connected. I knew there were people who weren’t connected, but I hadn’t stopped to fully consider what that meant for their day-to-day lives. Having internet access at home is something I have never questioned. It’s my source of news, my way of staying connected with friends and family, how I access information for my graduate schoolwork, and my entertainment.
The more I worked in digital inclusion and had discussions about “bridging the digital divide,” the more I realized what that actually meant. Digital inclusion is not just about catching up on your favorite Netflix shows, Facebooking your friend across the country, applying for jobs, or getting alerts on your phones about current events. Digital inclusion is all of that and more. It’s about giving people access to the opportunities that they need and want. Connecting them to the rest of the world. Getting them the training they need to succeed in a technology-driven society.
I have grown this year because I have a better understanding of what digital inclusion actually is and why it is such an important issue for our society to be talking about. I have grown—before this Fellowship, I didn’t realize just how passionate I am about providing digital equity for everyone.