December 23, 2015

Discarding Our Assumptions: Digital Inclusion Fellowship Voices

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 are working this year on projects that include setting up basic computer skills courses, increasing home Internet usage, and volunteer recruitment and training. Dustin Steinacker shares his recent work as a Fellow in Provo, UT, working for the United Way of Utah County.

The United Way of Utah County began our adult digital literacy pilot program in early November. Our ultimate goal is to create self-sustaining, one-on-one computer mentoring and instruction programs throughout Utah County. We’re doing this by giving the volunteer population—primarily youth— the tools they need to start mentoring programs serving people where they themselves live, and opportunities to mentor potentially disadvantaged populations in partnership with The United Way.

Due to the need to build up a volunteer base and test our curriculum and mentoring strategies, we chose three locations for our pilot, each serving seniors: two local retirement homes—one Medicaid-subsidized, one not—and a local senior center which the United Way of Utah County has worked with in the past (for whom classes began just recently).

We quickly learned as we taught the classes to discard our assumptions about what people might need. The curriculum we’d initially planned took a three-lesson format: first teaching basic skills; then how to navigate a computer and use programs in the abstract; and then focusing on what our learners wanted to cover. However, our learners had such a broad range of backgrounds, positions, and needs that we quickly scrapped the need for a particular instruction format entirely. Here is a snapshot of our learners’ backgrounds:

  • Some people were very tech-savvy and merely needed a hand with more recent technology (like touchpads and tabbed browsing), while others were starting fresh.
  • Some were trying to transform their entire lifestyles, while others came to class with specific areas of focus—like figuring out the buttons on their new tablet, or learning how to use YouTube so that they could play music over the computer speakers in their rooms.
  • And finally, some had their own computers, either laptops they could bring to the class or desktops they couldn’t; while others took the opportunity to use the laptops we brought to check their email or accomplish other tasks in an environment where they could ask questions and seek help if needed.

Key recent successes have been beginning classes at this third site, and receiving an offer in the last few weeks from local college Brigham Young University to make our mentoring program an official program of their service center (allowing us to begin regular mentoring at still more sites). However, the highlights of the past six weeks which invariably come to mind are individual stories.

I’d like to share one of these stories in particular: Norm (name has been changed) hasn’t had a computer for a few years. He keeps his broken laptop at home, but the machine is useless—it won’t boot up to the desktop. His friends describe him as brilliant, though he’s lost quite a bit of confidence in the past few years after having a stroke and finding simple tasks, including computing, to be very difficult. Norm attended our first class. Even with his limited ability to express, I could tell that he was intimidated. As one of three volunteers, I did my best to give Norm the individual time that I knew he needed in order to feel that his concerns and priorities were being addressed. Still, he seemed closed-off and distant, and he didn’t show up the next week, or indeed for the following month. The others who knew Norm insisted that he’d never be back.

However, a few weeks later while we were holding our class, I saw Norm standing outside the door of the computer room. I invited him in, but he waved his arm and sat down outside the room, looking in periodically.

Near the end of the hour, after some people had left and things had begun to quiet down, Norm walked in at last and took a seat in front of one of the empty computers. I was able to sit down with him and, by the end of the class, he’d logged into his email account for the first time in years, and was already browsing online retailers for a new computer.

Everybody that I’ve met in our courses has a story. Whether it’s one they’re comfortable sharing or not, there’s no mistaking the glow in somebody’s eyes when they finally learn for the first time how to turn on their new tablet they were gifted; when they hear an album on YouTube for the first time in decades since they lost their vinyl copy; or when they learn how to download and share photos of their grandchildren on Facebook. These are all real stories. While each may be small, in the end they represent something very real and life-changing in its own way: a new skill (or a regained one). Empowerment, as the device they’ve had sitting in a drawer for weeks becomes something that they can actually use. Regaining connections with friends and family through social media and video chat that they’d otherwise only see in person, if ever.

Our vision is to involve the broader volunteer communities in Utah County in witnessing these little stories of transformation themselves, by providing training materials and confidence to those who contact the United Way looking for service opportunities, as well as those we can recruit to the effort. By doing so, we’re hoping to create a ripple effect which extends far beyond us, as digital newcomers and digital natives come together.

Dustin Steinacker