Challenges and Solutions for Inclusive and Equitable Digital Access
Digital access is key to advancing digital inclusion and equity for all learners. Persistent gaps in access to devices and connectivity, and in opportunities to develop digital skills, exacerbate existing disparities in educational attainment and income and have a disproportionate impact on Black individuals and other people of color. Around 71 percent of people who have less than a high school diploma use the internet, compared with 84 percent of high school graduates and 98 percent of those who have some college education. People with lower incomes and formal educational levels are significantly less likely to have broadband access at home and are much more likely to rely on smartphones for internet access. While a third of all American workers ages 16 to 64 have limited or no digital skills, that is true for about half of all Black and Latinx workers. Additionally, Americans with disabilities are adopting technologies at lower rates, regardless of age. Such disparities reflect long-standing inequities in American society, such as income and wealth gaps and uneven access to high-quality K-12 education.
In the national digital skills landscape scan conducted as part of the Digital Resilience in the American Workforce project, access to devices and the internet was among the most frequently mentioned challenges. This blog post will share effective models and practices revealed during the landscape scan related to addressing equity-related barriers to device and internet access and to digital skills instruction.
Access to Technology, Devices, and Internet
Devices for Learning
The Challenge: Learning on Smaller Devices
According to a 2020 ProLiteracy study, access to devices and broadband/Wi-Fi is the second-highest need of adult education learners, surpassed only by employment assistance. For those on the privileged side of the digital divide, technology feels ubiquitous, but the reality is that only about half of households earning less than $30,000 per year have a computer, compared with 94 percent of households with an annual income greater than $100,000. As a result, many adult learner-workers are learning on smaller devices, like smartphones and tablets. While responsive design allows a learner to access the same content with smartphones and tablets as they would with a computer, reading text and doing math on a small screen increases the cognitive load, thus expanding the barrier to learning and making tasks more difficult and frustrating. Access to larger-screen devices (such as tablets and laptops) is needed to effectively learn, study, and communicate online.
This need is echoed in a report from Digitunity, The Importance of Large-Screen Device Ownership, which found that relying on smartphones for internet access limits the range of one’s online activity and digital skills. According to the report, large-screen devices are particularly essential to providing equitable access for the elderly, people with health challenges, and individuals with disabilities. The report advocates for protecting and equipping shared device spaces that provide such access and also serve as secondary venues for accessing technical support, such as libraries. Such actions would help to maintain and expand equitable access for the unhoused and those without reliable in-home computers and/or internet connections.
A Solution: Providing Larger-Screen Devices
Securing funding to purchase devices is a challenge, and organizations such as National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) and Digitunity are working to get devices into the hands of learners in various cities through partnerships with technology refurbishers. Digitunity works with individuals and corporations to secure device donations and has helped provide adult learners with donated computers from large corporations, such as Wiley and Unisys. The city of Philadelphia also has an initiative, PHLDonateTech, for residents to donate devices to those who need them.
Device Maintenance and Technology Support
The Challenge: The Unknown
Getting devices into the hands of learners is only the first hurdle. What happens when the devices need to be updated or repaired? Adult learners who own computers and other devices often struggle to maintain them and to access tech support when they break down. Learners do not have the specialized knowledge to troubleshoot problems and repair devices; in fact, participants in learner focus groups conducted for the DRAW landscape scan expressed fears of breaking their devices. A lack of consistent, convenient access to functioning computers contributes to lower academic achievement rates for low-income college students.
A Solution: Tech Support
There is a critical need for hotlines or in-person drop-in support services to help adult learners secure, use, and maintain their devices outside of the classroom. Some adult education programs refer students to public libraries for in-person tech support, when available, while others offer assistance remotely, sometimes in multiple languages. In Texas, a statewide bilingual phone hotline that was initially set up to provide remote math tutoring was repurposed and used as a technical support portal given the immense need for this service. That hotline has now expanded to serve as a Distance Education Call Center that provides technical support to practitioners and students every day of the week.
The Challenge: Disproportionate Access
Some 18 million households in the United States don’t have internet access of any type (including cellular or satellite). People of color are disproportionately affected; lack of internet access is much more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods, on tribal lands, and in households where Spanish is the primary language. Many Adult Basic Education students can’t afford the in-home broadband or Wi-Fi connections needed to participate in remote learning.
A Solution: Subsidized Offerings
Some newer initiatives that support access to free or reduced-cost internet access are being led by Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Google, and EveryoneOn; federal reimbursement is also available as part of the 2009 Recovery Act and the Affordable Connectivity Program. While these initiatives are helpful, adult learners need increased assistance and awareness of such opportunities so that they can access and use such resources. Organizations such as NDIA and its affiliates are working hard to facilitate the adoption of these services, but partnerships with adult education could support greater uptake. Adult education leaders can get involved through the opportunities created by the Digital Equity Act, including the state planning grant program and other forthcoming opportunities from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Adult education programs that want to get involved can review the Notice of Funding Opportunity for the Digital Equity Act’s State Planning Grant. Follow the Transforming Immigrant Digital Equity project on the EdTech website to access an annotated resource that will provide clarification and guidance, especially for serving individuals with language barriers. Additionally, more information can be found in the article, Digital Equity Now: A Call to Action for Adult Education Leadership.
Recruitment and Access to Digital Skills Instruction
The Challenge: Static Models
Beyond access to devices and the internet, over 32 million adult learners in the United States need support with device and internet use and the development of digital skills. According to the Digital US Coalition’s 2020 report Building a Digitally Resilient Workforce, adult education programming provides less than 10 percent of the foundational digital skills instruction needed. This points to a deep need for updated models of both student recruitment and digital skills instruction to expand the reach of adult education services and support more learners. As more digital inclusion services become available, it will be critical to promote them to those individuals who are most in need of such supports.
A Solution: Flexible Engagement
The Digital US report proposes providing instruction to adult learners in different contexts and settings to meet them where they are. Diversifying the places where instruction is delivered, the devices used for instruction, the times when instruction is offered, and the people delivering the instruction can result in increased access and new community ecosystems that foster learning.
Learners who participated in the DRAW focus groups expressed a strong preference for in-person and online classes over other forms of learning but made it clear that they benefit most from a multi-modal approach. They said they prefer the structure of an organized class but also want to be able to get individualized support from a tutor or digital navigator, and to access independent study materials for practice. When a digital navigator or other staff member is available to work with individuals to answer questions and solve technical issues, it increases learners’ confidence, helping them to overcome fear, embarrassment, and nervousness.
Many adult education and digital inclusion programs use the term digital navigation services to refer to the initial onboarding and ongoing support they provide to help learner-workers access devices and the internet to access services and search for jobs online. Digital US first coined the term digital navigator in 2019, building on decades of work by libraries and digital inclusion programs to provide such personalized support. The organization envisioned digital navigators as trained staff members or volunteers, including education and workforce providers. Digital US provides training and extensive resources for programs to embed this service into their work, including an online Digital Navigator Playbook that includes case studies of digital navigator services in adult education, community colleges, and library-based programs, and navigator resources that can be used for providing support.
NDIA also offers free resources and consulting and training on the digital navigator model. One initiative that emerged as a result is the Cybernauts program at the Los Angeles Public Library. Cybernauts are trained computer aides who work in the library to assist individuals or facilitate small-group training on basic to advanced technology skills. Another example of digital navigation services is “push in” digital navigators who come into adult education classes, such as those at the Ronald M. Hubbs Center for Lifelong Learning, at regular intervals to provide IT services, digital skills training, and other digital inclusion support.
One example of a large-scale investment in embedding digital navigator services into other programming comes from California’s Department of Social Services, which purchased thousands of laptops for federal aid recipients and had them distributed by social service staffers during their home visits. The laptops came preloaded with adult learning content and licenses to Cell-Ed, a mobile learning provider that helps learners start to operate a computer through phone- and text-based instruction that doesn’t require internet access.
Digital US’s 2020 report envisioned digital navigator services being offered in diverse, nontraditional settings that learner-workers frequent, such as retail stores, coffee shops, health clinics, laundromats, community centers, and even parks. It also called for embedding basic device access and tech and digital skills support into trusted settings, including health care, employment services, housing, and food banks. The experts interviewed for the landscape scan similarly emphasized the importance of embedding support everywhere digital skills touch people’s daily lives.
The Power of Ecosystem Partnerships
We have explored various solutions to address equitable-access challenges faced by diverse adult learner-workers. One through line in all of these areas is the power of partnerships. These partnerships vary based on need, location, and structure, but they are critical for the success of adult education programs and learners alike. The Digital US report illustrates a scenario in which the learner is at the center and employers, education and service providers, government and philanthropy organizations, and technology developers and companies all partner to meet the needs of diverse learner-workers (see “Ecosystem for Digital Resilience”).
Digital inclusion researchers have identified collaboration as a feature of some of the most effective digital inclusion efforts and have called for interconnectedness, or an association formed across organizations working together to forge a mutually beneficial relationship that facilitates the sharing of human, material, intellectual, and financial resources.
Partnerships with employers are particularly critical in efforts to engage workers at their worksites, often even on paid time. For this reason, Digital US is implementing an employer engagement strategy through its Employer Network Advancing Digital Skills and Equity network co-led by World Education and the UpSkill America initiative of the Aspen Institute. The Behind Every Employer initiative led by the Coalition on Adult Basic Education and Skills USA also has an impressive list of large employer partners. It seeks to educate employers about the value of engaging with adult education workforce initiatives and programs and is providing incentive grants to adult education organizations that can demonstrate effectiveness in connecting employers with multiple workforce and education partners.
Collaboration across adult education programs can also help to increase access. National professional organizations increasingly provide guidance on how to form such partnerships and program models, such as digital navigation services, that could be built into intervention design. Various organizations, such as World Education, NDIA, and the National Skills Coalition, are closely following new U.S. Department of Commerce infrastructure funding and other federal investments. These organizations and others are gearing up to provide capacity building for local adult education and workforce organizations focused on learning how to engage in, inform, and partner on state spending. Investments in capacity-building efforts of this kind will help ensure the effective design of programming and partnerships that support digital inclusion.
To learn more about access, read the full Digital Resilience in the American Workforce project landscape scan, scheduled to be released in the summer of 2022.
DRAW is an initiative from Jobs for the Future (JFF), World Education, and Safal Partners that is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education under contract GS10F0094X. The U.S. Department of Education does not endorse any of the assessments described in this blog.
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