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Social Distancing Inspires New Digital Literacy Strategies

Reaching those on the other side of the digital divide and teaching the tech skills needed to participate in digitized society has long involved in-person interactions. Now, COVID-19 is changing the approach.

by / June 23, 2020
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Digital literacy work — which involves teaching folks to use computers so they aren’t left behind by societal digitization — often plays out through classroom instruction, library initiatives, or direct outreach at community events. COVID-19 and social distancing, however, have made all of that limited or impossible.

As a result, public servants on the front lines of the efforts — a group that most often includes librarians but in recent years has grown in some places to encompass city hall staffers with connections to the central IT shop — have had to develop new approaches to helping more citizens learn to use technology.

This has manifested in a few different efforts at the community level and will likely continue to do so nationwide. Chief among these new efforts is a program called Digital Navigators. Created by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), this program is described by officials in its simplest sense as “an adaptation of traditional digital inclusion programming to this new reality, providing one-to-one dedicated support via phone service.” This service will be accomplished by trained and dedicated staffers.

In short, what this concept involves is creating channels for citizens to receive tech support over the phone from local government, librarians, nonprofits, community groups or whoever else was handling digital literacy work in a given area. To help stakeholders accomplish this, the NDIA has developed a baseline job description for staffers to do digital navigator work that can be tailored to meet provincial needs. The description was finalized earlier this month, borne out of a working group of NDIA affiliates formed in April.

As the posting notes, the “model can be adapted to the capacity you have available, be it newly dedicated full-time employees, cross-trained staff, or volunteers.”

Angela Siefer, executive director of the NDIA, said there has been a surge in community and cross-sector support for digital literacy work, owing to the COVID-19 crisis confining people to their homes in a way that necessitates the Internet to participate in much of society. At the same time, many traditional channels for accomplishing digital literacy work are hamstrung due to public space closures and distancing.

That’s where the Digital Navigator program is designed to help.

Some existing local government digital equity programs have also already embraced the concept, among them Philadelphia. Philadelphia has a pre-existing Digital Literacy Alliance Grant program, which has recently been used to fund work around the U.S. Census.

In April, the city moved quickly to tailor their existing Digital Literacy Alliance (DLA) grants to support training for Digital Navigator staffers within trusted community organizations still engaged in digital literacy work.

Juliet Fink-Yates has been involved with digital literacy work in Philadelphia for many years, and she currently serves as a digital inclusion fellow within city hall. She said when the COVID-19 crisis broke out, the city was aware of the increased need for digital skills training, and at the same time the national push toward the Digital Navigators program began.

She said the central question was, “How do we help support people when they’re home and they desperately need Internet connectivity but they don’t have the skills?”

So, Philadelphia tailored its DLA grant program to support adding the positions in its own local ecosystem. Three organizations across the city have now received a total of $90,000 in grants in the service of creating the positions. 

Fink-Yates also sees potential for this program to help bridge the digital divide long term, with the programs set up to reach people remotely lasting on, even at the nebulous point in the future when the virus is no longer a threat.

“It opens up possibilities of serving people in ways we haven’t traditionally served them,” she said, “whether it’s by phone or text or a Zoom call if they do have a phone.”

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Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

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