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No 'Sticklers'

Digital Skills Symposium Focuses on Local Outreach

To close the digital literacy gap and maximize federal dollars for increasing broadband access, programs and institutions need to focus on local solutions, existing community programs, and community anchor institutions like libraries, said numerous panelists at the FCC Communications Equity and Diversity Council’s virtual Digital Skills Gap Symposium and Town Hall Thursday. The symposium is intended to help inform the CEDC’s efforts to create a national plan and toolkit for digital upskilling in connection with the Digital Equity Act, said CEDC Chair Heather Gate.

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We owe it to those that have yet to realize the full digital promise to first meet them where they are,” said former FCC acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn in the event’s keynote speech. “Digital education is local,” said Angela Siefer, National Digital Inclusion Alliance executive director. “If we don’t have trust, we’re not going to make the gains we need to make.” Providing devices and access to broadband by themselves doesn’t “bridge the digital gap,” said Allison Grubbs, director of Florida's Broward County Libraries Division. Entities looking to advance digital literacy in underserved communities should seek out existing local programs that already teach digital skills as a starting point for larger-scale efforts “even if it’s that one person in the church basement that offers help with devices on Tuesdays,” Siefer said. The targets of such programs should also be given a chance to weigh in on how digital literacy programs are going, said Clyburn. “They know their needs.”

Digital education efforts shouldn't be “sticklers” over how specific dollars are spent but focus on measures for success, Clyburn said, noting she's a stickler for “fiscal responsibility.” She said to succeed, digital literacy programs likely need to be free to participants. Households at or below the federal poverty line are often perpetually in debt and unlikely to participate in even low-cost programs, Clyburn said.

Efforts need to focus on creating systems and procedures that will last even beyond the current push for digital access, Siefer said. New digital devices and systems will keep being developed, and people will inevitably fall behind in digital literacy, she said. “We’re not actually going to solve the digital divide,” Siefer said. “These things are going to keep happening; let’s figure out how to set up systems that will move forward.

Many underserved communities face specific challenges in handling the increased interest and demand for broadband access, panelists said. In many tribal areas, finding people with the digital skills to create digital literacy and access programs is difficult, said Joseph Valandra, Tribal Communications' senior vice president. Digital literacy programs should incorporate metrics for measuring their impact, said Jon Gant, dean of North Carolina Central University’s School of Library and Information Sciences. “When this money expires, they’ll be asking that question about metrics,” he said. “Build them in from the get-go.”

The COVID-19 pandemic widely accelerated interest in digital upskilling, but it also created demand beyond many communities’ resources, said Alonzo Melendez, digital equity and inclusion coordinator for the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon. Melendez said the library has 100-person waiting lists for devices, and he's unable to meet the demand for digital literacy classes. Applicants often find the combination of signing up for the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program and contacting providers challenging, said Juliet Fink Yates, digital inclusion manager of Philadelphia's Office of Innovation and Technology. The agency should look for ways to streamline that process, she said.

Many hands are still needed to support the ACP, said Rashann Duvall, assistant division chief-FCC Wireline Bureau. Stakeholders should be on the lookout for additional information about pilot programs and outreach programs, she said. “We definitely have an interest in seeing broad participation in this program.”