We've been hearing about the "digital divide" since before the turn of the century. First emerging as American consumer protection groups sought stricter regulations on telecommunications companies, the term quickly became a global catchphrase.
Today, we're no longer just talking about the gap between people with Internet access and people without, but between people who are reaping the benefits of technology and those who cannot.
It's one thing to acknowledge that some people can't browse Wikipedia or stream Netflix. It's another matter entirely when people can't access government services or are unable to meaningfully interact with their communities. "Digital equity" has become even more critical today, as the pandemic forced almost every aspect of life online.
Put another way, it's not enough just to hook people up to the internet. You need to make sure that they know how to use it.
Since 1971, Hawaii Literacy has been committed to making sure Hawaii residents have essential reading and writing skills.
Anyone who grew up in the Hawaii public school system probably remembers their Bookmobile making the rounds, providing a brief escape from the classroom to browse a bus-sized library of borrowable books.
Hawaii Literacy also provides tutoring to children and adults in underserved communities, operates literacy centers in Kuhio Park and Mayor Wright Homes public housing, and conducts community outreach across the island.
"Education and reading level are the strongest predictors of future income," Jill Takasaki Canfield, executive director of Hawaii Literacy, tells me. "Ninety percent of people who do not have reading comprehension will require state assistance and are more likely to experience homelessness in their lives."
After half a century focused on foundational reading and writing skills, however, the information age has dramatically shifted the landscape.
"Digital literacy skills are as vital as basic reading and writing," she says. "Digital literacy skills [are] a need magnified by the pandemic as essential services, many jobs, and education have moved online."
To meet this need, Hawaii Literacy has launched a Digital Literacy Program to teach Hawaii residents basic computer skills, as well as provide them laptops or tablets along with internet access. The program is aligned with the state's Workforce Resiliency Initiative, designed to increase access to both basic civic services as well as advancement opportunities.
"We’re removing the lack of literacy, access to the internet, and skills to navigate online tools as barriers to finding better jobs, succeeding in school, or enjoying a book together as a family," Canfield explains.
She was kind enough to participate in an email interview where I sought to learn more about the why and how the Digital Literacy Program was launched.
Q: When you talk about basic computer skills, what is the basis of the curriculum?
The basis of the curriculum is the NorthStar assessment to measure basic computer knowledge and skills. The class curriculum emphasizes visuals, simplified definitions and examples, and hands-on application to help overcome literacy barriers to digital inclusion.
Our goal is to ensure access to this opportunity to upskill the one in six adults that struggle with reading in our state. We have adapted this curriculum and included others designed to support foundational digital literacy for low literacy adults and English Language learners.
Q. What constitutes digital literacy? Is it familiarity with business applications? The ability to evaluate the trustworthiness of a website?
A. In today's world, literacy skills and technology go hand and hand. Basic computer skills and digital literacy are literacy. The foundational class focuses on computer basics – how to navigate the internet and use computer programs, helping to empower the learners and determine individual goals for learning computer skills.
After the beginner course, learners will have the option of participating in topic-focused workshops to build skills around core areas of interest and need, like applying for health insurance and employment.
The pandemic highlighted the gulf between people who can leverage technology and those who can’t. It underscored the reality that not everyone has access to devices and service, or is equipped with the necessary digital literacy skills. Our goal is to do our part to change that.
Q. How does the Digital Literacy Program provide technology tools such as broadband access and devices?
We were fortunate to be able to provide Wi-Fi and laptops to the graduates of our pilot digital literacy class. Our next cohort of learners is slated to start in January and will be provided with tablets and Wi-Fi access upon completion of the digital literacy class.
Q: Can I ask what sorts of devices?
Q: How is all this paid for?
The project is being funded by our 50th Anniversary sponsors. This includes grants from American Savings Bank, HEI Foundation and HECO. Nareit Hawaii also provided a grant for 150 additional tablets with free broadband access for a year.
We are thankful for the generosity of these sponsors who make it possible for us to put devices, broadband and digital literacy skills into the hands of families so they can connect to the resources they need to make their lives better.
Q. Do you have flagship or permanent facilities or locations? Are these resources coming, or already in place?
We plan to have our classes embedded in our family library sites at Mayor Wright Homes and the Towers at Kuhio Park. Unfortunately, the pandemic has impacted when and how we can conduct group classes in the public housing sites. In the interim, we have been using space at the Kukui Center where the Hawaii Literacy office on Oahu is located. We also have plans to expand to other partner sites in 2022.
Q: What is the role of your organization in the broader digital equity and workforce development movement?
Hawaii Literacy is part of the network that’s working toward the Workforce Resiliency Initiative’s goal of connecting 100,000 people to opportunities to develop basic digital skills.
Our niche is to ensure that even those who struggle with reading can access the initiative and reach foundational levels of digital and traditional literacy. We’ve created a digital literacy model to focus on connectivity, culturally informed digital skills training, and access to technology that can be scaled to public housing sites and other organizations that serve low literacy adults.
Q. How are Hawaii Literacy's other programs going? I imagine the Bookmobile was impacted by COVID. Any other highlights for this landmark year?
We successfully piloted an intensive tutoring program, launched our new Digital Literacy Program, and started an initiative to connect families in Waipahu and Kalihi-Palama with community health workers and other resources.
We continue to innovate, making adjustments to in-person programs, moving some programs online, and implementing technology when effective, appropriate and possible.
We continue to connect people to resources they need — whether books, a tutor, technology, training or support — so they can empower themselves to succeed, ending generational cycles of poverty and under-education and helping our communities to thrive.
Whatever the program or method, our goal is to connect adults who want to improve their reading and writing skills with the resources they need, and to help close the achievement gap so that all of Hawaii’s children, especially those from under-resourced communities, have access to quality education that prepares them for a successful future.
Literacy impacts every aspect of a person’s life. For the past 50 years, Hawaii Literacy has worked with communities disproportionately affected by high illiteracy and poverty. We will continue our work to empower children and adults with reading, writing, school, and life skills so they can build a foundation for a better life.
Q. How can we support your work?
Getting the word out to those who may need support, who know someone who might need our services, or who may want to help by volunteering or making a donation.