Now is the time for adult education to get involved in digital equity priorities and funding
By Gwenn Weaver
Digital equity is a concept that allows people to fully embrace the digital world. Digital technology has become the driving force for most aspects of life; and adult learners need more than basic and conventional computer skills to engage in the 21st century. The pathway to digital equity starts with digital inclusion.
What is Digital Inclusion?
As defined by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), “Digital Inclusion refers to the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).” This definition goes on to say “Digital Inclusion must evolve as technology advances. Digital Inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional, and structural barriers to access and use technology.” Read more about the five elements of digital inclusion on NDIA’s definitions page.
The digital inclusion movement has led to broader understanding of the concept of digital equity. The U.S. government’s digital equity program, Internet For All, guides the work required to reach digital equity. Internet For All aims to close the digital divide through the $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed by congress in November 2021. According to the NDIA, the digital divide is “the gap between those who have affordable access, skills, and support to effectively engage online and those who do not.”
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – New Opportunities for Adult Education!
The IIJA contains two significant programs addressing digital equity: the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program (BEAD) and the Digital Equity Act (DEA).
- BEAD provides grants to “eligible entities” for “broadband planning, including deployment, mapping, equity, and adoption projects and activities.” BEAD aims to improve and expand the physical broadband infrastructure for unserved and underserved communities.
- The Digital Equity Act (DEA), with an allocation of $1.25 billion, contains three grant programs intended to move everyone toward digital equity.
The purpose of the first is for each State to develop a digital equity plan, followed by a second grant for States to “implement the plans and promote digital inclusion.” The planning grants have been distributed, and States are currently creating digital equity plans.
The third major component, the competitive grant program, will be open to many types of organizations, including nonprofit, community-based organizations. The purpose of these grants will be to perform digital inclusion activities and help establish digital equity. For example, the DEA will fund digital skills training to low-income populations. Competitive grants are expected to be announced later in 2024.
For more information about DEA and all federal funding activities, see InternetForAll.gov.
Both the Notice of Funding Opportunity for the State planning grants and NTIA guidance issued by the NTIA include detailed lists of the types of individuals and organizations with whom each State should collaborate and consult. The Digital Equity Act identifies “covered populations” which include many adult learners, such as individuals with language barriers, low-income households, racial and ethnic minorities, and many others. Further, the instructions require States to engage with many stakeholders, including organizations that are considered community anchor institutions, nonprofits, and organizations representing covered populations.
These requirements and guidelines, along with the needs of adult learners, are among the key reasons it is crucial for the adult literacy community to engage in the development of the State digital equity plans and be prepared to participate in the competitive grant program. Access to information and communications technology has become essential for everyone. Digital technology drives many elements of life, including education/learning, working, financial management, government/public services, shopping, transportation and travel, entertainment, health, and wellness. Even most hourly rate jobs require some minimal capability to interact with technology—from restaurant systems to job hunting that must be done online. As a result, people need a multiplicity of skills to engage with technology, including foundational literacy.
Digital inclusion is the collective goal in the effort to dispel the digital divide. Achievement of digital equity is the means to “level the playing field.” This is a key reason the adult literacy and learning community must be connected to digital equity and inclusion activities.
How Can Your Organization Get Involved?
The most direct way is to become involved in the development of your State’s digital equity plan. Using the Internet for All website, you can locate the agency leading your State’s effort. A State contact and other information are available on the Internet for All interactive map. In some cases, you may be able to volunteer for a task force or work group; in others, your organization could become a consultative resource that the State agency uses to gather data for the plan. World Education’s “Get Involved in State Planning“ offers guidance on how to engage.
If the direct approach is not practical or possible, you may be able to add your group’s voice to a local collaborative or cooperative effort. Digital equity and inclusion work is happening in many communities under a range of banners, and many collaborative organizations are addressing all five facets of digital inclusion. Search the NDIA website to find these activities in your area. Community collaborators may include public libraries, state and local government agencies, educational bodies, businesses, philanthropic organizations, community-based organizations, and faith-based entities.
By engaging in digital equity activities, literacy organizations can help adult learners live and thrive in a technology-based world. Now is the time for the adult education community to make their voices heard and take advantage of these key funding opportunities!