Digital literacy: is it time?

Proficiency in the use of digital technologies

The FCC’s Broadband Plan is coming to Congress on March 16 and it’s already making a difference. It has us talking about broadband in an unaccustomed way. Not just can we get faster, cheaper broadband. Not just can we get it to everybody. No, the FCC team recognized early in the game that even the most generous supply-side solutions would never solve the problem of the missing one-third – the proportion of Americans without broadband, which is roughly the proportion of Canadians without broadband.

Wanna buy a nice black box that will change your life?

New research is getting to the bottom of some interesting demand-side issues – particularly about broadband holdouts. Survey researchers have developed good tests for gauging the technical skills of respondents while they’re being interviewed over the phone. But there has long been a puzzle as to how to treat responses like “I’m just not interested in broadband” – a puzzle shared by both researchers and policymakers.

This is not a trivial problem. Even a groundbreaking device like an accelerometer-based, multi-touch-screen-equipped, mobile computing device can suddenly seem very appealing and user-friendly – if it’s, say, an iPod touch. The value of broadband is much harder to communicate, especially to the digitally illiterate – who are the very citizens least likely to understand their condition and most likely to benefit from acquiring digital skills. Tackling the problem of how to encourage adoption, especially among “holdouts,” has become one of the most impressive achievements of the FCC’s broadband task force, even before they table their final report.

Digital inclusion as a social goal

At a meeting in Washington on March 9, the FCC and others held a Digital Inclusion Summit.

Notice how  the policy goals outlined below are aimed at improving the chances that broadband holdouts will benefit from the FCC’s work, in ways that affect their employment status, their health care, their kids’ education. In Canada, however, we’re much less concerned with the welfare of the public at large and much more concerned with “regulating” the Internet, so we can protect the Trailer Park Boys and the jobs that go with them.

Here are three of the most compelling initiatives discussed at the Summit:

1 – Improve digital literacy for all Americans:

  • Public funding for a Digital Literacy Corps to conduct skills training and outreach in communities with low rates of adoption, while building workforce skills for Corps members.
  • Increase the capacity and knowledge in libraries and community centers to provide digital literacy training.
  • Creation of an Online Skills Portal, containing free, age-appropriate lessons from the technology and education sectors that users can access and use at their own pace.

2 – Show how broadband is relevant:

  • Public funding for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to support public-private partnerships.
  • Private and non-profit partnerships in national outreach and awareness campaigns.
  • Targeted support for seniors.

3- Make broadband more affordable:

  • Expand to include broadband in two FCC programs that currently help make voice telephone service more affordable, known as Lifeline and Link-Up.
  • Consider use of spectrum for a free or very low cost wireless broadband service.

Survey segments the holdouts

While some FCC staffers are out talking with stakeholders, others are getting the information needed for evidence-based policymaking.

In February the FCC released a big survey as part of its Omnibus Broadband Initiative (OBI) Working Paper Series (over 5,000 respondents): Broadband Adoption and Use in America. Although we have a different population makeup, I think many of the general trends should hold (with notable exceptions like the breakouts for Blacks and Hispanics). And there are the usual finicky details concerning the terms “adopter,” “user,” “person with access at home,” etc.

That said, about 35% of Americans are classified as “non-adopting” – i.e. they do not have broadband at home. The sub-group that cannot get broadband where they live is 12% of non-adopters; thus, 31% of Americans can get service but choose not to. The fascinating part concerns the main reasons given for not adopting. The top three reasons are cost (36%); lack of digital literacy (22%); and lack of relevance in users’ lives (19%). Together these three groups account for fully three-quarters (77%) of the non-adopting segment as a whole. Here is what the summary says (p.5) about the latter two groups:

“22 percent of non-adopters cite factors pointing to lack of digital literacy as the main reason they are not online. These include people who are not comfortable with computers or, for non-Internet users, are “worried about all the bad things that can happen if I use the Internet.” …

“19 percent of non-adopters do not have broadband because they question its relevance to their lives. They do not believe digital content is sufficiently compelling to justify getting it. Specifically, these non-adopters say the Internet is a “waste of time,” do not think there is anything worth seeing online and (for dial-up users) say they are content with their current service. Dial-up users make up a disproportionate share of those citing lack of relevance as a barrier.”

If you thought making broadband affordable in our duopolistic North American market was going to be a challenge, how about trying to make it approachable and relevant to the poor, uneducated, elderly, technophobes, linguistic minorities, the homeless and other dispossessed segments of Canadian and American society.

Next up: two new research studies that dig even further into a) the digital have-nots; and b) the billions of dollars the US economy is flushing away by ignoring the problem of digital literacy.


2 thoughts on “Digital literacy: is it time?

  1. Hopefully the initiatives discussed at the Digital Inclusion Summit will inspire Canada to adopt some of the initiatives. The creation of an Online Skills Portal I am certain will be such a beneficial tool in creating technologically savvy Canadian citizens as it is free and allows users to access the tool and use it at their own pace. Even though there are computer courses which are offered in various locations in Canada, the high prices and the hectic lives lived by many often discourage individuals from attending the courses. The Canadian government should very seriously be considering such a service for Canadians especially since Canada is made up of a large population of immigrants.

  2. It’s because of initiatives like the Digital Inclusion Summit that I retain my cheerful disposition… As you may have assumed I find point #2 to be particularly pertinent due to my classroom advocacy for sufficient senior citizen support in the face of aging boomers and for the fostering of Canadian PPPs.

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