University of Maryland Extension Mobilizes to Help Bridge the Digital Divide

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May 24, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has been full of teachable moments, including the moment our lives moved online, and Maryland legislators learned that 23% of the state's households lacked broadband internet services. It rapidly became clear that nearly a quarter of Marylanders would struggle to find consistent internet access and web connectivity needed for job productivity, communication with family and friends, and the search for critical information like testing or vaccine sites. To help satisfy the demand for future web access, University of Maryland Extension (UME) has received $6M as part of a $300M statewide package to develop and adapt curriculum, train, and support an increase in digital literacy, access, and navigation.

There is a new sense of urgency from Maryland legislators to empower connectivity, with UME at the forefront of the effort. The three core components of this statewide project are broadband infrastructure and deployment and rural broadband and digital connectedness, affordability including funding for broadband service fees and devices, and adoption. UME will focus specifically on the adoption component, with $4M available for training, competency, and education initiatives, and $2M to help people sign up for access and acquire a device. 

Following a close examination of the Abell Foundation’s recent report on digital connectedness, UME faculty discovered that the digital divide in Maryland disproportionately affects residents in Baltimore City and rural counties, low-income residents, and people of color specifically Black, African-American, Latinx, and older individuals. UME will cater their efforts specifically towards those audiences. 

“The digital divide disproportionately affects Marylander’s learning, work, access to service, civic engagement, and living. We are seeing some of the lowest subscription percentages in urban areas like Baltimore City and rural communities.” said Jim Hanson, professor and associate dean/director for UME. “There are also low levels of digital literacy with many individuals not seeing the means for connectivity. Through this generous funding from the state, we will mobilize a tech-education division to provide the training, support, and curriculum development to help increase adoption, understanding, and comfort.” 

According to UME project leader Jinhee Kim, the project’s first phase will emphasize stakeholder surveys and interviews to better understand community needs, with participation from the statewide Office of Broadband, Maryland Rural Council, and also the university’s School of Information Studies because of their unique connection to the library system. In rural communities, library computer stations are major points of web access for residents making partnerships with libraries an essential component of this plan.  

"Digital literacy is an important part of our digital inclusion efforts," said Kenrick Gordon, Director of Statewide Broadband at the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. "Without providing a firm understanding of how to access the internet and what it can be used for, we will fail in our efforts to ensure that all Marylanders have access to, understand and are able to utilize broadband."

“The survey and needs assessment phase is critical, otherwise we may miss accessibility or adoption issues that apply to a large group of people,” explained Kim. “UME wants to meet community members at their comfort level, allowing them to further their education and information gathering abilities through seamless broadband access.

In subsequent phases, UME will use the $4M to develop curricula that are social, cultural, and linguistically appropriate; provide training and support for instructors and trainers, volunteers, peers, family members, and residents; create an online digital literacy repository; and develop digital literacy partnerships with government agencies, libraries, workforce agencies, nonprofits, businesses, and many others. 

The $2M will be directed toward improving digital navigation including home connectivity, devices, and digital skills; assisting community residents with resources on affordable broadband access and devices; and providing basic technical support, like how to connect to WIFI, to enhance digital access.

“The question isn’t how much it’ll cost to bridge the digital divide, the question is how much will it cost if we don’t act right now,” State Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said at a press conference to announce the funding. “Who will be left out of the opportunities of today and tomorrow if we don’t have urgency around this issue?”