Elizabeth Lindsey is a speaker at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference in March.
“There’s this great new digital literacy program. It’s available online.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this well-meaning suggestion. As the Executive Director of a digital literacy and IT training organization, I appreciate supporters and friends taking a real interest in our work. But this statement shows how far we need to go in understanding the depth and breadth of the digital divide, and how we can bridge it.
There are millions of people who have never touched a computer or a mouse, have never Googled, have never sent an email. They cannot register for your program online, see an ad for your nonprofit on Facebook, or access your new mobile app. And they can’t necessarily improve their digital literacy on a computer because they might not know how to turn the computer on.
Technology can be a great tool for nonprofit practitioners, but tech can also create a barrier to reaching the communities we care most about. Programs must be accessible to low-tech and no-tech populations, groups that are still widespread both in rural and urban areas.
There are thousands in Washington, DC alone who fall into this category. As Byte Back starts our 20th year providing tech training to underserved residents in the District, we have not yet exhausted the number of people who need digital literacy training.
Having access to technology, to a digital skillset, and to broadband is a privilege. Those being left behind by an ever-growing digital divide can’t also be left behind by us.
Luckily, there are three steps your team can take to include no-tech and low-tech communities in your programs.
1. Ask, ‘Who’s Missing?’
The first rule in diversity and inclusion is to ask yourself, “Who’s missing?” Then come more questions: Why are they missing? Are you effectively targeting and including everyone who needs your services? Is the technology you’re using creating a barrier to anyone?
Answering these questions requires honest evaluation of your work, taking a step back, asking outsiders, and consulting those people on the other side of the digital divide for their perspectives.
The latest study from Pew Research Center shows 13 percent of Americans don’t use the internet. Are those people being reached and served by your organization?
2. Test Your Program with Low-Tech People, Then Think Radically
Now that you’ve identified who is missing and you’ve reached out to them, you need to put your product or services in their hands and see what happens. Do some testing. Look for any gaps in their ability to use technology. You may need to revise your program to address these gaps.
It is impossible for a person who is digitally skilled to be able to identify all the potential barriers to no-tech or low-tech users. Many of us take for granted our own fluency with devices and software, so these gaps must really be identified with the input of the population who needs to be included.
If you’ve created a program to be used with the latest device and operating system, how does this program work on older or slower devices or with a slow internet connection? Test it yourself and also let your potential audience test it for you.
If it doesn’t work for them, think creatively and maybe radically about changes.
You can consider offering training or partnering to make your services more inclusive, as we’ll explore in the third step. Or maybe the gap is deeper and including these populations requires replacing digital with paper, or using it as a supplemental option.
3. Incorporate Digital Literacy Training or Partner for Tech Inclusion
If you find your programs aren’t fully inclusive of low-tech or no-tech populations, it’s time to take action. This could start with some easy-to-incorporate solutions, such as including a printed tutorial on how to use your app, short workshops for your clients, or drop-in sessions where volunteers walk clients through digital use.
You might also need to try different forms of outreach. Partnering with other nonprofits or government agencies in your community can help you bring your services to more people.
Byte Back partners with the DC Office of the Chief Technology Officer to use an innovative Mobile Tech Lab to physically bring digital literacy training closer to the people who need it most, to neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast DC.
We host AmeriCorps volunteers and recruit community volunteers who teach digital literacy courses, making the program affordable to run and increasing the capacity for reach.
If you don’t have the capacity or technology training doesn’t fit into your mission, look for other solutions.
There is probably a local organization, a government program, or a community library you can partner with. In Washington, DC, Byte Back partners with dozens of nonprofits and government agencies every year for referrals and site hosting. OATS (Older Adults Technology Services), based in Brooklyn, does the same.
You can find digital literacy training programs near you on this great list from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
You can also work to direct your clients to affordable access to technology and devices. Byte Back works with Comcast to refer students to affordable internet access, and we partner with Project Reboot, a local nonprofit that provides affordable refurbished computers.
Other organizations can do the same, building a network to direct clients to training, access, and devices that will help them across the digital divide.