By Deborah Kennedy, president, National Coalition for Literacy
Adult education and family literacy providers throughout the country are well aware of the effects of gaps in digital capability on both their programs and their program participants. These gaps are evident at multiple levels:
- Infrastructure: Availability of broadband has increased over time, but differences persist. The Pew Research Center notes that, in general, “roughly three-quarters of American adults have broadband internet service at home,” but “adoption gaps remain based on factors such as age, income, education and community type. …Home broadband adoption varies across demographic groups. Racial minorities, older adults, rural residents, and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home.” Broadband speed is also often a barrier to increasing digital capacity, but using a service like the dish network can help to speed up slow connections, getting more people online faster.
- Individuals: Large disparities remain between those who are proficient in the use of technology and those who are not. Insufficient education is another major barrier, with many lacking the IT skills needed to complete basic computer tasks. A recent release from the National Skills Coalition connects this disparity with larger inequities. “Digital literacy includes both the capacity to use technology and the cognitive skills necessary to navigate it successfully. But a startling one-third of American workers lack these vital digital skills. …Due to longstanding inequities, workers of color are over-represented among those with limited or no digital skills. For example, Black workers comprise 12 percent of overall workers, but represent 15 percent of the subset of workers who have no digital skills and 21 percent of those with limited skills. Latino workers (who may be of any race) are 14 percent of overall workers, but represent a full 35 percent of workers with no digital skills, and 20 percent of those with limited skills.”
- Programs: Programs vary widely in their approaches to providing digital skills training, to using distance learning to increase their reach, and to providing professional development in technology-mediated approaches to instruction for adult education practitioners. These variations stem from different states’ policies on distance learning and professional development, as well as from differences in the financial and infrastructure capacities of different program contexts (for example, community college based versus CBO based).
These disparities have gained new prominence in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the nation’s workforce. As a recent paper on digital fluency from the National Skills Coalition notes,
Many laid-off workers are scrambling to identify how they can regroup and re-engage in a labor market that has shifted overnight, and one in which the traditional solution of “going back to school” for additional training has been complicated by a rapid shift to online-only learning. Many training providers are ill-equipped to match demand for remote learning, and many are not ready at all to shift to online or technology-enabled programs. Even more critically, the rapid shift to online or technology-enabled learning means that workers with no or few digital skills – already at a disadvantage in the labor market – may not be able to effectively participate in training and earn the credentials they need to reconnect to work. Similarly, those workers still employed are facing significant new demands to build technology-related skills – across all industries and sectors – as digital tools enabling remote work are the single thread tethering them to continued employment.
Notably, with the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on March 27, the adult education field gained an opportunity to begin to address these challenges. The CARES Act includes nearly $3 billion for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF), a formula grant program that allows governors to provide emergency support to any education-related entity within the state that the governor deems essential for carrying out emergency education services to students. Activities conducted under the umbrella of the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, including technology integration activities, are specifically included in the allowable uses.
The Department of Education has made the funds available to governors as of April 14, so adult education practitioners should act now to ensure that adult learners and adult education programs are included in their governor’s funding priorities, with a particular focus on building technology capacity. Here’s what to do:
- Understand that the funds will be available through your state’s governor’s office, not directly from the Department of Education.
- Governors are likely to appoint a committee or task force to establish priorities and processes for allocating funding. Contact your governor’s office to advocate for inclusion of a representative of the adult education community on that task force or committee. Reference the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund specifically.
- Remind the governor and other decisionmakers that integration of technology is a key aspect of WIOA and that digital literacy is called out as an essential element of workforce preparation. Use OCTAE’s Integrating Technology in WIOA guidance to stress this.
- Note that both Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai are strongly promoting the use of GEER funding for technology-related purposes.
- Develop a set of priorities and plans that would work best in your context, with related cost projections. Include everything you can think of that would make technology-enabled instruction more available and accessible to your adult learners. Here are a few possibilities:
- Internet access points such as wifi hotspots in parking lots that adult learners can use from their cars to maintain social distancing
- Provision of electronic devices (tablets, laptops) with relevant software already loaded
- Acquisition of software/platform licenses
- Professional development for teachers and staff
- Staff time for online materials and activities development
- Teacher/staff compensation for one-on-one phone tutoring with adult learners
You want to be ready when the governor’s office invites you to submit a request!
Applying a racial equity lens to digital literacy: How workers of color are affected by digital skill gaps. National Skills Coalition, March 20, 2020.
Mary Freeman and Vickie Choitz. Why adult foundational skills matter now more than ever. Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, April 27, 2020.
Integrating technology in WIOA. OCTAE, March 24, 2015.
Leticia Lewis and Molly Bashay. Digital fluency for a resilient economy. National Skills Coalition, April 21, 2020.
Judy Mortrude. Is your state planning for an equitable digital future? EdTech Center at World Education, February 13, 2020.