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Is the key to bridging the digital divide social media?

Cracking the digital divide is no easy task. The barriers for success are high. But a team from the University of Wisconsin was able to make major inroads by using social media to educate and inform community organizers.

Jennifer Smith is the communication officer for the University of Wisconsin Extension Center for Community Tech Solutions. She told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the bridging the digital divide is absolutely necessary.

“We were working with two stimulus grants. The challenge was to reach out to people that were not online. In developing a communication and outreach approach we really wanted to be using digital media and really demonstrating where we are going with this whole thing but we are really facing an issue of how are we going to reach people who aren’t online with online tools,” said Smith.

Tools of the trade

“We used a wide-range of online tools. We had education outreach folks at every community that we were working in. They needed to develop curriculum and teaching materials:

  • We used online tools to connect community educators to resources in and out of the state.
  • We used online tools to connect the community to grantees.

“In a lot of cases, the community organizers had never used these tools before either. So we were trying to be a little more active in the online space to help the cause. The availability also helped raise the community educators comfort level.”

  • “We also used Twitter and Linkdln to connect with local media. A lot of the elderly people we were trying to reach used radio/tv as their main news venue. So if we could get into those publications we could reach that audience. But we had to use our social media tools to actually connect to the media.”

Target the right demographics

“We piloted the program in various communities. Seniors. Rural. Low income. Most of those folks didn’t have access to a computer or technology at all,” said Smith.

Go where they are

“We choose the communities knowing the demographics of each. Our strategy was to go where they were located. For seniors it could be the senior center or the mall. For some of the rural areas it was the coffee shop or local watering hole,” said Smith. “In one town in particular there was a high number of military personnel. So our community educator set up laptops in a coffee shop, so that people could Skype family members that were serving overseas. You have to make the technology very personal to them.”


“It was great to take tablets and mobile devices out. Seniors in particular found the iPads very useful because they could enlarge the fonts,” said Smith. “Mobile hits a lot of the younger demographics too and often act as the bridge between kids and their elderly caregivers.”

Built on trust

“People trust the places and people they know. This digital push is not going to work if community educators go into a places where they are unfamiliar with tools that people don’t understand. What we can do on the larger level is to teach the community educators through social media so that they can educate their towns. It is a trickle down effect,” said Smith.

For more you can check out Jennifer Smith’s presentation.

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