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Strategies to Increase Digital Literacy and Accessibility

Microsoft had an interesting blog series all surrounding the digital divide, accessibility and strategies to help overcome the digital divide. The digital divide can be looked at through multiple lenses – but at the core, the digital divide relates to accessibility for all.

The Microsoft series identifies a 2010 IDC study that finds 50% of today’s jobs require technological skills, and that percentage can increase to 77% over the next 10 years. Also, the report identified that 9.5 million students do not have access to technology that will help develop the needed skills to make them competitive in the workforce.

There are many challenges related to removing the digital divide and mitigating its effects. In particular, access to broadband presents one roadblock in digital divide efforts. Providing access to broadband would be a critical step for the nation and help alleviate some symptoms of the digital divide. Although the government has reported success in improving broadband access, a remaining obstacle continues to be cost of broadband and computers. There have been some promising initiatives, which have used smart phones and taken advantage of new technology to provide low-income citizens with access to the internet.

With funding so tight in government, it is a hard sell to support investing in broadband across the nation. In my opinion, in the long-run, investing in broadband is critical to the nation. There are a couple ways to look at this, and Curt Kulcun, Vice President of Microsoft Public Sector, identifies a few in his blog post. The first reason, is that regardless, costs associated with the digital divide are going to increase. By providing widely accessible broadband, some of the cost associated with the digital should drop, because more access means that citizens can attain the much needed technological skills. Curt Kulcun states, “the greater the digital divide, the harder it is for the government and industry to find qualified employees.”

I decided to spend some time looking at what kind of programs are currently being done at government to help close the digital divide, two programs that caught my eye were Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and Connect to Compete.

Broadband Technology Opporunties Program (BTOP)

BTOP was part of President Obama’s 2009 Simulus Bill. The bill contained $4.7 billion in grant money for those in rural and low-income communities to help provide access to broadband technology. There is an interesting summary of the program here, below are the key findings from a December 2011 quarterly report:

  • 123 infrastructure projects totaling $3.5 billion in Federal grant funds to construct broadband networks;
  • 66 Public Computer Center (PCC) projects totaling $201 million in Federal grant funds to provide access to broadband, computer equipment, computer training, job training, and educational resources to the public and vulnerable populations; and
  • 44 Sustainable Broadband Adoption (SBA) projects totaling nearly $251 million in Federal grant funds to support innovative projects that promote broadband adoption, especially among vulnerable population groups where broadband technology traditionally has been underutilized.
  • Through September 2011, 31 BTOP recipients reported that their training and adoption projects led 229,178 households and 1,577 businesses to subscribe to broadband services. The Program exceeded its goal of 100,000 new households or business subscribers for FY11.

  • Report identifies to success stories from Arkansas and Miami-Dade County
  • As of September 30, 2011, BTOP funds have allowed Connect Arkansas to distribute approximately 130 personal computers and record 408 new sustainable broadband subscribers.

  • As of September 30, 2011, BTOP funds have allowed the Miami-Dade County School District to distribute computers to more than 2,400 families, and record 2,000 new sustainable broadband adopters.

Connect to Compete
Connect to Compete was another Federal level initiative, this was a private-public partnership that began in May of 2011. Connect to Compete offered discounted broadband and computers to low-income citizens. The program has many supporters, including Microsoft, Comcast, and Time Warner. Microsoft has participated in Connect to Compete by offering $250 computers with Windows 7 and Microsoft Office pre-loaded and also providing $150 refurbished computers with the same software loaded. Microsoft also developed a free online portal that offers job skills trainings and basic digital literacy in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.

A report from the FCC and Connect to Compete highlighted some related challenges of the Digital Divide:

  • One-third of all Americans – 100 million people – haven’t adopted broadband at home. Broadband adoption is key to America’s competitiveness – to jobs, e-government, education, and energy. Compare that to South Korea and Singapore where adoption rates top 90 percent.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, the top three obstacles to broadband adoption are digital literacy and trust, relevance and cost.
  • There is a growing divide between the digital-haves and have-nots.
  • Less than one-third of the poorest Americans have adopted broadband, while 90%+ of the richest have adopted3
  • Less than 50% of African Americans, Latinos, elderly and rural populations have adopted broadband4
  • About 46% of low-income families have adopted broadband at home compared with over 90% of higher- income families5
  • Low-income Americans, rural Americans, seniors, and minorities disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide and excluded from the $8 trillion dollar global Internet economy.
  • 80%+ of Fortune 500 companies require online job applications (including major employers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and ExxonMobil)
  • A Federal Reserve study found that students with a PC and broadband at home have six to eight percentage point higher graduation rates than similar student who don’t have home access to the Internet
  • Consumers with broadband at home can save more than $7,000 a year.

Although these programs are great steps forward, more work needs to be done to inform citizens of the opportunity and encourage participation to help citizens develop the skills they need to succeed in the future.

What are some programs you know of related to the digital divide? What are some of the challenges you see and obstacles to overcoming digital divide?

Every day at Microsoft we are motivated and inspired by how our customers use our software to find creative solutions to business problems, develop breakthrough ideas, and stay connected to what’s most important to them. Check out their Microsoft Productivity for Government group on GovLoop as well as the Technology Sub-Community of which they are a council member.

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Christopher Whitaker

The City of Chicago has a partnership with the Chicago Community Trust in order to tackle the digital divide. Dan O’Neil (one of the minds behind EveryBlock) runs the Smart Chicago Collaborative and is behind efforts to bridge the digital divide in Chicago. This includes getting Comcast to provide cheap high speed internet to kids who are on the free lunch program, providing refurbished computers at low cost, and providing training opportunities to communities.

For more info, see the site here: http://www.cct.org/impact/partnerships-initiatives/expanding-information-access/smart-chicago

Pat Fiorenza

Thanks for sharing, Chris. While writing this post Chicago came up a bunch of times with initiatives they have going on to bridge the digital divide. Lots of really interesting and empowering work being done.

I read a couple articles too that talked about some of these programs get criticized for having barriers to entry…like complex applications or some of the people who need the services most are disqualified from participation from the onset. I think that will be a reality with any program, if anything, it shows what a huge need bridging the digital divide is in the country.

Julie Chase

Who is going to “pay” for this? The taxpayers will be wondering, “I have a child going into college who needs a laptop, not only am I going to have to pay for it, I will also be having to pay for someone else’s kid who has spent their life in the “free lunch” lane.”

Technology, hardware and software are already in the schools across the country in the form of grants/and/or fed dollars. Come south, and you will see a different viewpoint. The families who are getting free cell phones, free lunch, free housing, food stamps and now the talk is free or cheap internet has to “paid” in someway. Do you think the cable companies and dish companies are not going to “increase” the fees paid by folks who are out working their fingers to the bone?

It is great to help all American citizens, a novel idea. The question will remain, WHO is going to pay for it? And what is the incentive for the “free lunch” lane folks to move forward with education and out of poverty when in addition to the many freebies offered will want to do so?

Faye Newsham

There are also questions of digital fluency – the impact of not being exposed to the digital world, whether or not you have access or can gain access – and what impact data-enabled smart phones have on these numbers. Across the world, people are skipping over the computer and broadband for the smart-phone… because it is more cheaply available to them, has broader range, and performs financially necessary tasks. As Julie indicates below, many schools are educating the children and providing access to them and their families. Ulike Julie’s statements, I think that just like roads, public transit, and schools themselves, we need to build an infrastructure that supports the entire country (and yes, pay for it too) — and yes, it will cost some more than others and it will cost people who will not benefit from it. Do you ride on a DC city bus every day? If not, you may still be paying taxes that lets hundereds of thousands of people do so. The benefit to you is that they are not on the road, they have access to jobs and pay taxes, etc. The “free lunch” lane isn’t something most of us willingly get into. I was on WIC with my children before they were school age. I held a good job, had 0 debt, and a small, meger apartment with no air conditioning. I paid 52% of my take home pay for them to go to daycare so I could work. Once they were school age, we did not qualify for free lunch. I made too much (about $100 too much). I also saw the many families who were, are, or have been on these programs. Many have multiple jobs and work hard to get out of the “free lunch” lane… Our system of public assistance keeps people working, healthy, and housed. The social problems of homeless children and families is huge in this country, take away these meger assitances and you quadruple the social issues and in the longrun cost much, much more money from the taxpayer dealing with it in different ways. I, for one, almost always vote for reasonable tax hikes. I want my roads to be fixed, have a bus ready for my sons or neighbors, ensure that the kids around me are educated to support me in my old age (not to mention allow me to eventually retire), and build an information network that is available to anyone.

Sharon Clapp

Two words – public libraries. In most cases, they’ve been working on bridging the digital divide since at least the ’90s, despite catastrophic cuts in funding to those organizations by recalcitrant taxpayers who are on the the “haves” side of the divide, haven’t visited their libraries for years & don’t realize the hard work that today’s librarians are doing to deal with the issue for ALL of our citizens.

Dennis Snyder

PBS aired a story back in the late 80’s about comparative literacy rates in the US and Japan. The conclusion of the study this story was based on was that literacy rates in the US were about 50%, while the literacy rate in Japan was 90%. The difference? In Japan it is assumed everyone writes and speaks the language, so they measured computer literacy. In the US, according to the study, only 50% of us can read, write and speak our language. Remember, this is in the 80’s before broadband. My point is that broadband is not the tool to increase computer literacy as clearly demonstrated by Japan 20 years ago. Language fluency is the key, followed by strong science and math. Txtg shrthnd ain’t gonna help nobody.

Jason Wilson

While I agree with Sharon that public libraries are key to bridging the divide, I have another idea that is a little radical. In many ways, computers are replacing mail. And the US Postal Service has suffered and not been able to keep up with the times. Having worked with postal organizations across the world, I see how others have adapted and provided additional services. I’d like to see the USPS provide some basic digital services. Why the USPS? It is a federal system that is already in just about every town, rural or urban.

What digital services? First and foremost, bill pay and online job applications. Instead of going to the post office to mail a bill or mail a job application, one goes to the post office (check or cash in hand) and pays their bill online or submits a job application. Second, computer time available for a very low cost. Post offices tend to be fairly quiet, almost library quiet, it might be a decent space to get online, look a few things up, and get some work done. Lastly, computer skills training would be necessary.

Dennis Snyder

I invite you to look at the companion article today, “Hacking the hactivist” in which Brazil became an easy target for Anonymous due to its wide-ranging infrastructure developed to bring technology to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status. “Why is hacktivism hitting Brazil with such intensity? Short answer: Twitter. Today, Brazil ranks second after the US in
Twitter usage. Ironically, the widespread use of Twitter has given hacktivism an elevated communications platform
for recruitment.”

While I’m not advocating abandonment of infrastructure projects, there needs to be some consequence awareness.