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Virginia County Pilot Offers Training to Bridge Digital Divide

Digital Prince William, a program in Prince William County, Va., launched a pilot project offering free technology classes to older adults to teach them the digital skills necessary to operate mobile technology.

Prince William County’s Department of Information Technology (DOIT) has introduced Digital Prince William, a program intended to improve technology literacy across the region through a pilot project that offers residents free classes on smartphone use.

The effort mirrors those led by other states and counties to bridge the digital divide, such as a project led by the South Carolina Department of Aging or one from Albuquerque, N.M.'s Department of Senior Affairs.

While the smartphone sessions started in November 2021, the overall program has been underway since fall 2020, according to DOIT Director and CIO Rob Mancini.

It's a partnership that includes Prince William Area Agency on Aging (AAA); the Office of Communication; the Department of Economic Development; the Office of Equity and Inclusion; the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism; and Prince William Public Libraries.

The pilot is initially being targeted to older adults, offering free, in-person classes to help individuals learn to proficiently use key features of mobile technology — namely, Android and iPhones. These two-session classes took place in November and December, teaching basic functions, security features and practical skills.

The program aims to deliver on goals of the Technology Inclusion Initiative, which was launched in 2020 to improve digital equity in unserved and underserved areas of the county.

“This is one area where I think, with a little bit of leadership and forethought, we can be public servants and do something for the public that we could contribute,” Mancini said. “It’s nice to show the IT team we don’t need to sit in the background all the time; let’s do whatever we can.”

The county put out three RFPs related to technology inclusion in spring 2021, one of which was specifically related to literacy and additional training. While DOIT provided general guidelines, the vendor ultimately developed the curriculum that would be used.

DOIT selected the vendor Future Kings to lead the classes, a nonprofit organization with a history of teaching cyber skills. Additional support for leading the classes is provided by volunteers.

COVID-19 caused some delays for in-person programming with the rise of the delta variant in summer 2021, but Mancini noted that those delays ultimately helped keep participants and volunteers safe.

According to AAA Director Sarah Henry, her agency’s role has been to get the word out to recruit participants.

She noted a shift in recent years of the technology literacy of those coming into senior centers compared to that of those entering 15 years ago, as most individuals who have recently retired from a workforce were likely to use computers in their roles. However, while she said they may have a basic understanding of using Internet-enabled devices, they may not be maximizing the value with all the capabilities available.

The way social isolation has impacted seniors throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and technology’s role in combating that isolation have also been more apparent, Henry explained.

After a full year of the program — in September 2022 — the county will decide how to move forward with regular programming. Mancini hopes that the program could expand beyond the older adult population to include other groups that could benefit. He would like to see future classes cover topics around cybersecurity to help protect individuals online.

Mancini underlined the importance of preparing the county for the future of digital services as the county moves more operations online.

“If we can help the community get better at those things, I think we can help move the big government services realm forward faster,” he said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.