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Introducing TechConnect: Bridging the Digital Divide

In 2021, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Infrastructure may conjure images of steel bridges, but the act also includes investment in metaphorical bridges: broadband internet and digital equity. Digital literacy has always been a priority at Literacy for Life. Our learners need improved computer skills to apply for jobs or help children in school, social media skills to promote a personal business, texting skills to stay connected to family, and internet skills to access banking information or telehealth services.

During the pandemic, we became acutely aware of disparities in digital literacy and internet access among our learners. For those who could download Zoom and log in, and who had reliable internet access, we provided nearly uninterrupted services. Some learners would drive or take the bus to “Wi-Fi hotspot” locations such as the public library’s parking lot in order to continue attending classes or meeting their tutors. Unfortunately, many learners lacked devices, internet service, or digital literacy skills. Rather than remaining connected and continuing to learn, they disappeared.

These observations have galvanized Literacy for Life’s commitment to digital literacy and digital equity. In fact, we are proud to announce that our digital literacy program is now named TechConnect.

As part of this emphasis, Literacy for Life recently applied for and was awarded a Digital Opportunity Case Study grant by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). The state has explicitly identified target populations: individuals with low income or low literacy, English language learners, and members of racial or ethnic minority groups. Those groups comprise the majority of Literacy for Life’s learners. For the purposes of our case study, we are focusing specifically on English language learners (ELLs). We have surveyed over 100 ELLs about their digital literacy skills and needs; we are formally assessing at least 25 of them to understand their digital literacy skills, using the NorthStar Digital Literacy Assessment; and we are providing digital literacy instruction in one-to-one and classroom settings. LFL will report on the survey results and the efficacy of instruction to the DHCD, thus contributing to the state’s research and planning.

Our survey has provided interesting information about learners’ access, skills, and needs. Results show that 56% want help getting cheap or free internet, which is another aspect of our case study. Literacy for Life has committed to assisting at least 20 learners to access affordable broadband internet service. Reliable home internet will allow them to achieve several outcomes which were identified as priorities in the survey results. These include applying for jobs, paying bills, communicating with family, and communicating with employers. Of course, these learners will also be better able to attend Literacy for Life’s online classes. We anticipate that our process will be a useful model for the state as they prepare to expand access to broadband internet.

We are excited to enrich our programming with TechConnect--but not as excited as our learners. One recently gushed, “I don’t like to take assessments, but I ran here to take this one. I need this class! I can’t wait!”

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