I’m replacing this Tuesday’s tip post with an update on my community-engaged students’ second major project: the Digital Inclusion Week Campaign (hosted by NDIA). If you read my “So You Want to Teach a Service Learning Course?” post, you know I’ve been teaching two CE sections this semester. I also wrote briefly about what my Fall 2020 students did for this class, but this semester, now that we are on campus again, we were able to do a lot more. These classes are focused on addressing the Digital Divide – the divide between those who have digital access / digital literacy and those who do not. The first time I taught this class (in 2019), I felt like no one outside of the nonprofit space took this issue seriously. You can see from this graph how the topic of “digital divide” dipped after the initial flurry of interest when personal computing devices came on the scene.
And yet fewer than 70% of residents in the U.S. have access to broadband internet. Nearly half of elderly people in the U.S. age 65+ (this was pre-pandemic) were online at all. In the Global South, 1-15% of connectivity is the norm. These stats all deal with literal access to the internet, but the other side of that coin is literacy. Just because someone has a computer or mobile device doesn’t mean they know how to use it or use it to make their life better. Those with limited literacy are also more vulnerable to digital privacy attacks. There is currently a serious digital skills gap that is gripping U.S. employment.
As educators, the assumptions we make about our students’ digital proficiency (and/or the irrelevancy of digital skills to our chosen teaching subjects) is harming the next generation of graduates. Even my students with relative privilege (consistent access to a working computer and the ability to navigate it without help) still struggle with some of the most basic functions like attaching files to an email, converting a document to a different format, or using search functions like CtrlF. This was my initial reason for learning more about the digital divide.
In my CE courses, my students read a variety of texts on digital access and literacy to prepare for our class projects. They volunteer with nonprofit organizations dedicated to addressing some aspect of the digital divide, and then they develop a campaign for Digital Inclusion Week. I give them broad parameters to start with – namely the purpose (to raise awareness of the digital divide in our campus community and to potentially raise funds and/or collect devices to refurbish). I then divide each class into three groups: fundraising/device drive, digital content, and analog/in-person events. Each group determines the scope of their group’s contribution to the campaign. They divide up the responsibilities and realize their plans for the campaign with some support from me (to read more about how I handle group work, see this post). I handle supply orders using funds from a grant and coordination between my classes (since there are two of them, I urge them to consult with one another so the effort looks more cohesive). My rather open approach to this project means I get to see how innovative and strategic my students can be. They practice problem-solving, they think through minute details, coordinate with campus personnel from many different departments, and resolve conflict when it arises. Has it been a breeze? Hardly. I am still learning a lot about how my institution functions – what I can/cannot buy with state funds, what functions need approval for on-campus events, which department is responsible for what. We also didn’t account for the supply chain challenges the world is facing, but luckily our admin went above and beyond to cover for our lapse so we could get what we needed in time to launch the campaign. My hope, of course, is that all these difficulties amount to learning how community engagement happens. To learn what it takes to be an advocate for a community.
For those of you who read this blog and want to see what my students do this week, you can learn more at digitalinclusiongm and diw-gmu.carrd.co and/or you follow them on Instagram (@digitalinclusiongmu) and/or Twitter (@digitalgmu). To join the campaign yourself, use #diw2021 and #DigitalEquityNOW
Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).