Bridging the Digital Divide
By Sheila Cain
Farida Yeasmin is an accomplished woman. For more than a decade, she’s been an educator, teaching geography and English grammar to children and adults and — after earning her Master’s degree — working as a school principal.
But that was back in Bangladesh, where she lived until she came to Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood in the summer of 2015. Yeasmin, 46, faced the obvious barriers when she arrived: She spoke little English, she was unversed in American culture and her vocational skill set wasn’t applicable to the U.S educational system. She was also unfamiliar with technology, and didn’t have the tools she needed to connect to the internet. Early job searches were difficult and fruitless.
“All the time I had to ask for help from my husband or younger brother,” says Yeasmin, who says she missed an important job application deadline because her family was too busy to walk her through the process online.
Now, however, things are changing for Yeasmin, thanks to a partnership between Comcast and Goodwill, which gives poor and underserved people technical skills – and reduced-cost equipment they need to use those skills. She’s started taking English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes at Goodwill’s Seattle training center, which incorporate technology training and iPad use. She also participated in a cashiering and customer service course, which weaves in technology tools as well.
The Comcast/Goodwill program is just one example of efforts in the Puget Sound region to bridge a wide, and persistent, digital divide.
“Digital literacy is a shared mission we have with Goodwill,” says Diem Ly, Comcast’s external affairs manager and diversity affairs lead, “but it takes public-private partnerships like ours — and the ones that so many others are doing — to affect change long term.”
Struggling to Stay Connected
Yeasmin is not alone in her struggle to remain relevant in an increasingly wired region. A 2014 report produced by the City of Seattle’s Department of Information Technology shows that while Seattle residents’ access to the internet continues to grow, there’s still a significant portion of the population — especially low-income residents and people of color — left behind.
The city’s phone survey of 803 people (sampled to mirror Seattle’s demographics) found that those with a higher education are more likely to use and own a computer, smartphone or tablet. People of color are twice as likely as whites to lack home internet access. It also found that lower-income residents tend to have lower-speed broadband service, while those with higher incomes are far more likely to have a speedier cable internet connection. Of internet subscribers, only about a quarter of respondents with household incomes under $30,000 per year have cable internet, compared to two-thirds of households that make $100,000 per year or more.
While the survey was conducted more than two years ago, the numbers still hold largely true, says Michael Mattmiller, the chief technology officer for the City of Seattle.
The impacts of a lack of internet access and adoption are not always directly visible, says Jim Loter, the director of digital engagement for the City of Seattle. Indirect impacts include the time spent driving to make purchases, on the phone trying to make an appointment or schedule a job interview, and coordinating busy schedules around the availability of public computers.
“These impacts are often magnified because the people who lack access are often the same as those who have the biggest transportation challenges, work-schedule challenges and child-care challenges,” says Loter. “They are often the ones who could benefit most from the kinds of convenience offered by the internet and yet are the least likely to have access, skills and devices necessary to take advantage.”
Internet Access Equals Information Access
People use the internet to access all kinds of information, according to the city’s survey. Eighty-four percent use it to find health or medical information, 64 percent search online for jobs or job training opportunities, and 91 percent use it to purchase products or services. In other words, internet connectivity is becoming more and more crucial to everyday living.
“A lot has changed in the last five or six years,” says Hanson Hosein, director of the Communication Leadership master’s program at the University of Washington and a champion of widespread access to technology as a way to promote human prosperity. “Technology has become more accessible, but also a lot more necessary. Meaning: if you don’t have it, you are being left out of something.”
Hosein feels some sort of unfettered access in the home is important, be it broadband or high-bandwidth mobile, especially for students. Education is pivoting from imparting information to teaching students to ask the right questions, he says — and the answers to questions are found in the trove of online knowledge.
“You’re disadvantaged if you don’t have access to that knowledge,” says Hosein. “On top of that, some of the best learning resources are in video format, which requires high-speed infrastructure.”
Further, says Hosein, there is a trend toward “flipping the classroom” in some schools; meaning that students will consume the lecture or lesson on video on their own time, then practice what they’ve learned when they’re back in the classroom with hands-on assistance from their instructor. Such an approach makes home access to a computer and a broadband connection (or a connection to a mobile device with a high-speed, high-data-cap connection) essential.
Internet connectivity is readily available at libraries and other public spaces, but the city’s survey indicates that few people use this option. Only 21 percent of respondents say they access the internet at a library, according to the survey, and only 2 percent at a community center.
That’s not surprising, says Barbara “BG” Nabors-Glass, vice president of job training and education at Seattle Goodwill. In addition to its well-known retail stores, Goodwill offers free job training and education programs serving 9,000 individuals a year in five Washington counties.
“Our students work all day, then come home to their children and other responsibilities,” says Nabors-Glass. “Are they then going to go to the library? No.”
Digital Literacy Partnership
What is working, however, is Goodwill’s Digital Literacy Program, created in 2013 with the help of a $100,000 grant from Comcast. The two-year program has resulted in a curriculum that covers the basics of internet usage and weaves technology into all of Goodwill’s job training classes.
The funding covers instructor training and development of a curriculum that has since been rolled out to Goodwill’s 10 training centers, where people ranging from recent immigrants and single mothers to ex-offenders and adults who never finished high school can take classes to improve their chances of finding a job. Goodwill students also have access to Comcast’s nationwide Internet Essentials program, which offers low-cost, in-home internet connectivity to qualifying households. Internet Essentials has connected 31,000 households in Seattle and surrounding areas to the Internet.
Instead of creating special or supplemental classes that focus more heavily on technology or digital literacy, those skills are instead integrated into Goodwill’s current ESOL classes. By integrating digital literacy skills into the ESOL themes like employment and community, instructors can create authentic activities that students can apply immediately and directly into their everyday lives. The goal is to offer real-life skills so students are better equipped when searching for jobs online or seeking information about community resources, for example.
The need is real, says Gina Hall, Goodwill’s director of philanthropy. Seventy percent of Goodwill’s students live below the federal poverty line, and 30 percent have no high school diploma. Many, she says, read below a fifth grade level. For most, educational and financial barriers make access to technology extremely difficult.
“If folks don’t have access to the internet, they don’t have access to information and resources,” says Hall. “It’s a double-edged sword. Many here are homeless, living in poverty, with English as a second language. If people don’t have information to get out of their predicament, they are literally stuck.”
But now, the Comcast/Goodwill partnership is helping residents throughout the city gain the skills needed to access information in a world that is becoming increasingly wired.
“We’ve worked collaboratively with Seattle Goodwill for years, supporting their amazing efforts at curating programs that made sense and had an impact on their participants,” says Comcast’s Diem Ly. “We helped make that vision a reality together.”
Yeasmin, for her part, recently graduated from Goodwill’s cashiering and customer service program and, after several interviews, landed a job at the Goodwill retail store in Rainier Valley. There, she’s helping stock shelves and assisting with customer service tasks.
“We have to talk with customers, so it’s helping me to improve my English,” she says.
Yeasmin’s excited to be part of the workforce and to be earning money, but she has bigger plans. Once she’s more settled, she wants to go back to school to follow the passion she’s had all her life: teaching.