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If We Build It, Will They Come?

Thoughts about Digital Literacy Program Development

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Cassandra Arnold
November 29, 2016

Providers of technology-enabled social services face a dilemma as they develop their programs. There is an increase in transportable, interactive tools that are supposed to increase access to business opportunities, public services and online learning, but lagging digital literacy skills prevents the intended recipients of these services from utilizing the tools. For example, mobile and web-based tools use video simulations and “gamification” features to entice participation and ease of use. But a program participant’s preconceived notions about technology and a lack of practical perspective about how technology can impact their situation, make people hesitant in embracing these tools. The lag in digital literacy skills can be overcome, but program coordinators shouldn’t assume a one size fits all approach.

A Pew Research Center study released September 2016 studied perceptions of online learning among adults. The study surveyed approximately 2,700 adults in 2015, of which 84 percent of the respondents were at least 30 years of age. The respondents’ perceptions of online learning were classified as follows:

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Per John Horrigan, author of the study, 31 percent of the respondents—identified as Cautious Clickers—used technology, but they were unfamiliar with online learning and hesitant about using technology in that manner. Thirty-three percent of respondents—identified as The Reluctant—expressed low awareness of technology. As Horrigan stated, this study is a snapshot of opinions that might change as knowledge of these tools increase. However, the respondents that were Digitally Ready—only 14 percent of respondents—follow a similar demographic pattern that was identified in previous studies that analyzed usage in the digital economy (e.g., Uber, Airbnb), digital activism or digital literacy in general. Bottom line, the more educated and higher income earners use technology.

As technology is more integrated into daily life and social services, there is a risk of digital inequity. Given how important human perceptions factor into usage, an increasingly important digital divide issue has become disparity in usage. The study, “The Digital Divide in the US: Access, Broadband, and the Nature of internet Use,” evaluated continuously and recorded automatically the internet activity of 90 families, 117 adults, and 143 children who resided in a medium-sized, urban community in the midwestern United States in 2001. The researchers studied whether attitudes about the internet influenced usage. The findings noted the following:

  • African-Americans used the internet less; however, email usage was consistent among Caucasians and African-Americans.
  • Low-income families were less likely to have social networks to utilize technology.
  • Perceptions of communicating with strangers on the internet was considered inappropriate or potentially dangerous.
  • Low-income families relied on offline communication networks.

This trend has persisted since the early 2000s, so different approaches need to be considered.

The city of Philadelphia has received multiple awards for their technology strategies. For example, CIO magazine included Philadelphia in its 2015 global ranking of 100 organizations that exhibit operational and strategic excellence in technology. This culture of technology innovation is also exhibited in the nonprofit sector. For several years, technology-focused organizations have participated in the Technology Learning Collaborative. The municipal and private organizations have shared strategies for how they develop community-based programs that consider the personal environment that might influence potential recipients of services. The following are some lessons learned from the 2014 conference:

Organization Program Objectives Enabling Environmental Factor(s)
District 1199c Training and Upgrading Fund Training of health care and human services workers Articulated how electronic medical records and electronic scheduling systems provide critical information across the continuum of care that impacts individual job performance and patient care.
Project HOME Homeless services Since GED programs were only available online, instructors used this situation as an opportunity to demonstrate education hacks – how the internet could be used to find assistance with course subjects and even online degrees.
Techgirlz Mentorship and career development for young girls Provided kits to people that want to introduce young girls to technology careers. A summer camp and professional mentors are also available.

 

The hope of sparking self-directed, personal exploration of technology through the introduction of interactive tools is a good first step. But tech-savvy professionals might be so excited about the functionality, they forget to articulate how the technology is relevant. There might be an assumption that benefits of technology are obvious. The Philadelphia programs explicitly stated the value proposition of technology to program participants, and they were hands-on in guiding participants through further exploration. This type of approach lays the foundation for sustainable, positive usage of technology.

In summary, program coordinators consider alternative approaches. Sometimes instructor-assisted, contextual guidance might need to be the default approach to rolling out and introducing individuals. This approach can be followed by online, self-directed technology tools for users that become more comfortable.


AuthorCassandra Arnold is a graduate student at Rutgers University – Newark School of Public Affairs and Administration. She is pursuing a master’s degree in Public Administration with a concentration in Nonprofit Management. Cassandra is also learning digital education practices as part of a certification program at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. She can be reached at [email protected]

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