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Digital Inclusion Training Programs Increasing Nationwide

As government and other groups that work directly with communities across the country increasingly prioritize digital equity, programs to train new experts in the field are steadily growing.

SLC Digitial Inclusion Event
Digital inclusion training programs are rapidly increasing, experts in the space say. The spike is a direct result of society — from government, to nonprofits, to individuals themselves — pushing for digital equity after COVID-19 made clear the importance of closing the digital divide.

Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), estimates the number of active digital inclusion training programs in the U.S. is triple or even quadruple what it was prior to the pandemic. Some programs focus on getting devices to folks who need them. Some work on digital skills training, and others do both.

Siefer and the NDIA have long put out resources to guide folks with digital inclusion training. It is not uncommon, Siefer notes, for her to now discover new programs built with NDIA’s published guidance by organizers who have never touched base with the group. That is, of course, in addition to people who are reaching out to the NDIA for help, too.

“We’re getting calls constantly that people want help,” Siefer said. “There’s an awareness we didn’t have before, and people want to address the problem.”

Perhaps the most common digital inclusion training in the country is the NDIA’s Digital Navigators model. This is, essentially, training of trainers. Digital inclusion experts work with members of community groups where digital equity is needed. Often, these are folks who then work directly with residents in some capacity. They range from librarians to staffers at senior centers to members of housing support groups. The commonality between them is they are already trusted by populations currently on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Through digital navigator training, they learn to help people with getting online, finding affordable Internet rates, using devices and more. A digital navigator might one minute point a resident to a group that refurbishes old computers and the next minute help someone sign up for the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program.

This Digital Navigator model is certainly not new, though. In fact, training trusted partners to help with digital inclusion is one of the foundations of this work. It is, however, getting more support after the pandemic.

Earlier this year, the NDIA announced it had gotten $10 million for its Digital Navigators model. The money — donated by Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google and its parent company, Alphabet — will go toward creating a nationwide Digital Navigators Corp, which will span 18 rural and tribal communities nationwide. It's also the single largest grant the NDIA has ever received.

Some local government agencies are also embracing Digital Navigator training. Digital Charlotte, in North Carolina, worked with the city there to integrate digital navigators with the city’s 311 platform.

That program launched in January 2021, and to date it has handled more than 700 requests for help from members of the community, said Bruce Clark, Digital Charlotte’s executive director. One thing Clark and his collaborators quickly learned is that callers usually have many needs or questions related to digital inclusion once they start talking to a knowledgeable person on the phone. Call with a question about email, stay to learn where you can get cheaper Internet.

That effort in Charlotte is staffed by a mix of private-sector volunteers and recruits from local workforce development programs, who in the process of being trained as digital navigators gain skills that can get them other work in the future. Charlotte has also spread awareness of this program to social workers and public servants who work directly with the community. This could mean something like a social worker in a homeless shelter telling clients about programs that can help them get devices to access the Internet.

Outreach efforts to let more of the community know about the Digital Navigator program in Charlotte are ongoing, and they include everything from door hangers on public housing to radio ads to job postings for digital navigators. Clark and Digital Charlotte also remain in close contact with the local government on this work.

Rachel Stark is the smart cities program manager for Charlotte, and in that capacity she is also involved with digital inclusion, including this Digital Navigators program. As Charlotte — like nearly every other city nationwide — pushes to get all residents online, Stark noted how important it is to have community partners.

“We really value all of the efforts,” Stark said, “because the amount of groundwork that needs to be done is so substantial to ensure Internet adoption.”

Support for digital inclusion work is on the way from the federal government, which has been allocating money for it throughout the pandemic and has earmarked a historic boost with last year’s infrastructure bill. Trying to better harness this potentially once-in-a-lifetime funding is helping to shape digital inclusion training programs.

Kami Griffiths is the executive director and co-founder of Community Tech Network (CTN), a group active in digital inclusion for 14 years. Currently, CTN is preparing to launch a new program called Digital Lift, which will also work with community groups to teach them how to do this.

“The challenge for us right now is we know there’s a huge demand for training of trainers, for a curriculum and for just a general understanding of how to help people get online,” Griffiths recently told GovTech. “That’s why we’re launching this Digital Lift program.”

Digital Lift — currently being piloted in Caldwell County, Texas, just south of Austin — seeks to offer tools, training and peer learning to groups that work directly with residents. The idea is to hone the curriculum as they spread it in Texas as well as in California, where CTN is based. Eventually, Griffiths' vision is to serve dozens of public agencies and community groups each month, all with cohorts similar to each other.

Potentially, she envisions a curriculum for health clinics, another for agencies that serve seniors, another for workforce development, and so on. A big part of the goal is to just give guidance to folks who do casework, folks who are increasingly finding digital inclusion work lining up with their missions.

Again, part of the reason this is happening now is the spike in funding and available grants — from both the public and private sectors — is creating new urgency.

“They’re going to do amazing things with it,” Griffiths said, “but could they do more amazing things if they already have a curriculum created and translated? Or if their volunteers had already been through a training program?”

The Digital Equity Leadership Lab (DELL) in Baltimore is another example of the growth and evolution of digital inclusion training in the U.S. Established in 2021, its overarching goals are similar to other programs in the space, in that it aims to equip members of the community with the skills they need to help close the digital divide.

DELL, however, goes deeper on the subject matter than most digital inclusion training programs, including in its six-week span learning about racial justice and the Internet, community broadband networks, advocacy to federal agencies, and even basics about how the Internet works. To do this, the program brings in national experts.

“You can’t diagnose a problem until you understand the system that it’s part of,” said Amalia Deloney, vice president and director of digital equity with the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, which created DELL.

Earlier this year, DELL announced its second round of special project grants, and it released a case study about its work so far. The case study found that the deep dive and the participation of federal experts is proving very effective.

The DELL program speaks to that trend in which other groups working toward justice are increasingly aligned with digital equity work. Advocates who work in the education, housing or health-care spaces, for example, find that in order to do their work, they now must be equipped with skills for helping folks connect to the Internet or to learn to use it.

While many digital inclusion training programs were created after the pandemic, others were forming before COVID-19 and are developing more rapidly now. One such program is the American Connection Project, a network of more than 140 companies and other groups convened by farming cooperative, Land O’Lakes Inc. That project focuses largely on connecting rural Americans to the Internet.

There is a strong digital inclusion initiative within that work, dubbed the American Connection Corps. Tina May is vice president of rural services for Land O’Lakes Inc., and she said the American Connection Corps grew from a listening tour that Land O’Lakes' CEO Beth Ford conducted about four years ago. Ford learned that access to the Internet was a pressing concern among farmers. More specifically, the farmers had problems accessing health care, education and employment opportunities; lacking Internet was a throughline within those challenges.

While their past efforts have included organizing a policy coalition and building free Wi-Fi hot spots, the American Connection Corps is designed to help members of local communities better understand what they can do for digital inclusion. While the idea began before the pandemic, the program is now focused on helping local leaders make their own cases for the coming government funding.

“We were really nervous,” May said, “and we were losing sleep over rural communities with a part-time city clerk and volunteer mayor. How are they going to raise their hands and say we need help?”

How, they wondered, would some of the smallest rural communities even learn about the federal funding that was available?

The program has now embedded 50 fellows spread throughout communities in 16 states. They all have AmeriCorps status, and some are in small towns and others in urban communities. The fellows are post-college, often working in their own hometowns or the places they grew up.

“We built that component in because it’s really about trust,” May said. “We see this a lot in rural places. If you know these areas, there’s an inherent level of trust and care. We thought if we built that in, these fellows could go faster.”

The fellows have hosts in these communities — generally members of nonprofits, local government or regional economic development groups — who help them with office space and other needs. The work started in September, and while it may seem relatively small, it's been productive. For some fellows, this could just mean explaining to a city attorney, for example, how to apply for a broadband grant from the state or a philanthropic organization. But with federal funding on the way, even small work right now is important.

“As everyone turns their attention to the implementation of the infrastructure bill,” May said, “Time is of the essence.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine