Digital Inclusion models for Digital Equity Act  Proposals

The Following article was written by our friend and longstanding community member David J. Rosen. We Encourage you to check out his blog for other interesting thoughts and information on Adult Education, Peer learning, Digital Literacy & Reading Literacy.

A digital inclusion program can offer digital literacy skills in many ways. These include courses; tutorials; mentoring and coaching; as well as providing strategies to help learners identify and benefit from family, friends or other safe and accessible “tech buddies” whom they can turn to when faced with a technology challenge. Two very useful models are described below: Digital Navigators (aka Digital Navigation Services) and Digital Skills Learning Circles. A third promising model, a combination of these two, is also described. These models might be considered by those who are writing Digital Equity Act (DEA) Capacity Grant and/or Competitive Grant proposals.

Digital Navigators (Digital Navigation Services)

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) first introduced a digital navigator model in the spring of 2020. Since then, the model has rapidly grown. NDIA hosts a Digital Navigator Working Group, a good way to become part of the national community of practice that can be reached at NDIA also hosts a National Digital Navigator Corps that describes digital navigators as “individuals who address the whole digital inclusion process — home connectivity, devices, and digital skills — with community members through repeated, one-on-one interactions.” Digital navigators are found in county organizations, community-based organizations, adult foundational education programs or coalitions, community broadband networks, community action programs, public libraries and in universities or community colleges in urban, rural or tribal communities. Digital navigators are “trusted guides who assist community members in internet adoption and the use of computing devices. Digital navigation services include ongoing assistance with affordable internet access, device acquisition, technical skills, and application support.” Digital navigators offer “one-on-one technology training and community outreach to connect people to the internet, appropriate devices, and training.” Since their introduction, not unexpectedly, digital navigation services models have expanded and changed depending on the needs of the communities and individuals whose needs they are designed to meet.

Digital navigators need to be comfortable with digital technology, capable of learning new digital technologies as needed, and resilient in solving technology challenges. At least as important, they need to be patient, able to describe technology challenges and solutions in plain language whether English or in immigrants’ and refugees’ first languages. Often, they are already trusted members of the communities they serve. 

Learning Circles

Learning circles are study groups; since 2009, as a result of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab spinoff project, a not-for-profit open learning community known as Peer 2 Peer University or P2PU has worked to create a framework for the learning circle methodology that uplifts both peer-based and lifelong learning. In the P2PU model, learning circles consist of a group of learners and a facilitator who meet regularly in person or virtually to learn about a particular subject. At its origin P2PU’s learning circles often leveraged online courses (when offered to hundreds or thousands of learners at a time, these are known as Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs). Since then, however, P2PU learning circles have used various learning resources including, articles, books, videos and more. An additional benefit to P2PU learning circles is that facilitators do not have to be experts in the subject or topic that is being explored. This learning environment, where the facilitator acts as a guide, not a teacher, helps learners to take ownership of their learning experience and prepares them to be agile and adaptive learners. One of the trademarks of P2PU Learning circles is training on how to successfully facilitate peer learning. Facilitation can be done by subject matter experts but is most often carried out by volunteers from various backgrounds who benefit from the support of P2PU training.

In 2016 P2PU partnered with World Education, Inc. and developed a national learning circles model for adult immigrants and refugees who wanted to improve their English language skills. The “English Now!” project was adopted by adult English language programs in ten states, and it developed a free implementation guide that enables programs anywhere to replicate its learning circle model.  The guide may be useful in other contexts, for example to create and scale up learning circles to enable participants to acquire digital literacy skills.

A Third Model for Digital Literacy Skills: Digital Navigator-led Learning Circles

An emerging model that is a combination of digital navigation services and learning circles may be ideally suited for agencies, organizations and institutions that might be supported by states through Digital Equity Act funding or directly by federal DEA Competitive grants.

This digital navigator-led learning circle model could be one of a menu of learning options of a digital navigation services program. In addition to working one-on-one with community member clients or adult foundational education students (e.g. basic literacy, basic skills, high school equivalency preparation, English language services for immigrants or refugees,) digital navigators could also facilitate digital literacy skills learning circles for those who are at roughly the same level of technology, literacy and/or English language skills.

Features of this model include:

  • An initial digital literacy skills assessment

After the learning circle model has been explained to potential participants and a convenient day and time for a regular, often weekly, in-person meeting has been chosen, an initial assessment of what skills the learning circle members want and say they need is useful both to participants and to the learning circle facilitator. The assessment might be from notes a facilitator has taken during participants’ discussion before or at the first learning circle meeting. It might be followed up, where appropriate, with a formal assessment, for example using Northstar Digital Literacy Assessments (free to individuals.) Northstar assessments offer a reasonably priced subscription for programs to digitally track learner progress, proctor assessments, award certificates, and to access an assessment-aligned asynchronous or synchronous digital literacy skills curriculum. An initial and/or ongoing assessment might instead be a part of a digital literacy skills instruction app or online curriculum.

  • Participant goal setting

A participant and the learning circle facilitator need a shared understanding of the learner’s digital literacy goals. For example, participants may have specific needs they want to address such as how to:  get a free email address; create a resume or apply for a job online; use a personal videoconferencing app to stay in contact with friends, relatives or co-workers; get and use a GPS for driving, walking, cycling,  or public transportation;  download and use a ridesharing app; sign up and use tele-health; or other goals or objectives. The facilitator can then create or select a personalized online curriculum for each learner as well as choose a curriculum for the learning circle group.

  • An Asynchronous online curriculum, course, app or set of other online learning resources

There are many possibilities for an online instruction component of this digital literacy model. It should include lessons or other learning resources to be used by participants during and between real-time learning circle meetings.  Among the options are XPRIZE award-winning finalist adult literacy apps such as Learning Upgrade, Cell-Ed or other apps designed to help English language learners and other adult foundational skills learners and that have technology skills curricula. Learning Upgrade, for example, is also aligned with the Northstar digital literacy standards. Other possibilities include some of the free GCFGlobal technology topics such as Email, Computer, Internet, Office 2016, Online Safety, Windows, or MacOS; that has similar topics and also includes lessons on Using Google Maps, Searching Videos on YouTube, Getting started with Telehealth, and Basics of Videoconferencing, among other tech topics. CrowdED Learning’s SkillBlox, an initiative of World Education, offers a way for organizations to easily build their own digital literacy curricula, to enable them to “find, organize, adapt, and share quality content with learners” and “Build Customized, Skill-based Playlists in Minutes” and it offers a large collection of free, digital literacy resources.

  • Monitoring learning progress

Monitoring learning progress is easy with apps and curricula such as Northstar Digital LiteracyLearning Upgrade and other digital skills online products that have built-in learning assessments, and learning progress reporting features. It is more difficult and time-consuming to develop your own progress monitoring and reporting system, but it is possible, for example using a spreadsheet. Especially for DEA Capacity and Competitive grants, a data management system that enables easy state and federal reporting for NTIA digital literacy goals and objectives, and state goals and objectives will be essential.

  • Training and professional development

Training for new digital navigators is essential, and ongoing training and professional development for all digital navigators is worthwhile. Training for how to support peer-to-peer learning is important for learning circle facilitators, who often are volunteers, or who may be experts in helping people acquire digital literacy skills but not in facilitating a learning circle and supporting peer-to-peer learning. If the goal of providing community members with digital literacy skills is to help participants build digital resilience, their ability to bring confidence and comfort as well competence to solving new digital challenges, to build their own peer-to-peer technology support system, is especially useful. P2PU trains facilitators on how to build in peer-to-peer learning to learning circles.  Northstar, NDIA, the World Education Ed Tech Center, and perhaps some state adult foundational education agencies offer digital navigator training, and may be able to train local level trainers or digital navigators on how to use a digital navigator-led learning circle model. Professional development provider partnerships to train digital navigators to facilitate peer-to-peer digital literacy learning circles might be possible.

  • Program evaluation

An evaluation design built on program goals from the outset of a digital literacy skills program will enable formative (progress) data to support program improvement. Of course, evaluation is also important when reporting to funders and the community. 

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