Given how common computers and the Internet are in the Information Age, it’s tempting to take digital technology for granted. But there are many who still struggle to acquire the equipment and knowledge necessary to participate in digital societies. And they’re closer to home than you might think. According to a study by Microsoft, as of the end of 2018, over 162.8 million Americans couldn’t afford broadband Internet service. Another 24.7 million had no access to broadband Internet at all.
A 2018 U.S Department of Education study found that 16% of U.S. adults are not digitally literate, compared to 23% of adults internationally. Even in Canada, a mid-2018 study from Ryerson University showed that nearly 14% of Canadians had no home broadband Internet access. To make matters worse, the costs to access the Internet – and the speeds available – vary greatly based on where you live. Rural and low-income communities often have little or no access to affordable technology education programs. These are just some of the barriers to digital literacy.
Fortunately, there are organizations and initiatives working to remedy these digital inequities in classrooms, workplaces, and communities across North America and beyond. And that includes us at Techboomers, too! From teaching computer skills, to recycling digital equipment, to even building local open-access Internet infrastructures, here’s a list of prominent groups and projects dedicated to closing the so-called “digital gap”.
What is covered in this article
- People fighting for or providing equal access to low-cost internet
- Multi-purpose digital literacy non-profits
- Tech teaching organizations
- Places to get free or low-cost tech equipment
- Tech exchange & recycling programs
- Where to get digital literacy news & updates
- Other groups bridging the digital divide
- More reading on digital literacy resources
Read on to familiarize yourself with some of the great programs and institutions fighting to bring the life-changing power of digital access and literacy to people who have been left behind.
People fighting for or providing equal access to low-cost internet
What they are: These groups aim to make Internet access – a key component of digital literacy – both possible and affordable, regardless of people’s economic or geographical limitations.
Who they benefit most: Low-income families, disabled populations, or those who live in rural areas where setting up Internet infrastructure is not cost-efficient enough for major telecom providers.
The NDIA is one of the foremost non-profits in the fight for digital equity. Some of their work happens at the government level, where they act as a bridge between the public and policymakers by monitoring policies that could impact digital inclusion (for better or for worse).
In addition, they develop and lobby for digital equity policies based on data gathered about the state of digital inequity in America. But they also do a lot of on-the-ground work with other digital inclusion organizations, whether that’s directly teaching digital literacy or funneling both financial and operational resources to digital literacy programs. They’re at their most active during their annual Digital Inclusion Week, where they coordinate with organizations across the country to locally address digital inequity issues.
Primary Goal: Be a unified voice lobbying for home broadband access, public broadband systems, affordable personal digital devices, and local technology training and support programs.
Note: As of June 30, 2018, this site has been archived and is no longer being updated. It is still a great resource for digital inclusion materials and information.
This was an initiative put on by the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois. It was awarded a number of large grants and used them towards numerous digital literacy missions, including supporting and sustaining the adoption of broadband Internet by local communities.
They also researched ways to improve news literacy among American youth; created or redesigned public computing spaces for better collaboration between community anchor institutions; and facilitated discussions between governments, corporations, and non-profits on how these institutions – particularly libraries – could leverage high-speed Internet to better serve their community.
Primary Goal: Improve the democratic, social, and economic capabilities of local communities through access to information technology and digital literacy initiatives.
This initiative focuses on bringing low-cost Internet and educational tools to people living in assisted housing programs from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s spearheaded by EveryoneOn.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing low-cost Internet access, computer equipment, and digital literacy training.
Primary Goal: Close the digital divide for low-income families living in assisted public housing.
Created by the NACEPF (North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation), this company aims to support non-profit and community-based digital literacy initiatives with low-cost access to broadband Internet. They work with local institutions such as schools, libraries, community centers, hospitals, museums, senior citizen centers, and community colleges. They are aimed particularly at institutions for under-served populations, such as the poor, the elderly, and the disabled.
Primary Goal: Provide communities and non-profit organizations with affordable, mobile, high-speed Internet to assist their digital literacy goals.
Note: As of the publishing of this article, this initiative has shut down.
This group, hosted by OpenMedia.org and based in Canada, worked to build municipal broadband Internet networks served by independent providers and invested in by local governments.
Their goal was to reduce dependence on Internet networks from major telecom corporations, which often suffer from high prices and non-cutting-edge technology because there are few alternatives nearby to compete with them. This is especially important for rural areas, which may not get Internet at all if building infrastructure there is deemed unprofitable by the big telecom companies.
Primary Goal: Build locally-managed fiber-optic Internet networks as an alternative to “Big Telecom” Internet.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to building community-based infrastructure projects. They’re doing so to challenge the centralization of economic and political power around big multinational corporations. One of their initiatives is their Community Broadband Networks program, which aims to get municipal communities and governments to invest in locally-managed Internet infrastructure as a faster and more affordable alternative to private corporate networks.
Primary Goal: Develop locally-overseen economies and infrastructure so that communities can chart their own course.
This fund was created by the California Public Utilities Commission as a condition on the merging of several prominent telecom companies. It aimed to provide $60 million over the course of five years to deploy broadband Internet technology to places in California that need it most.
Some of the sectors they focus on most include rural communities that lack Internet access, as well as poor urban areas where digital technology is unaffordable. They also place priority on disabled populations for whom digital technology isn’t always accessible. The committee continues to work towards its mission with the help of non-profits, corporations, and governments.
Primary Goal: Improve the “5 A’s of Digital Technology” in California: access, affordability, applications, accessibility, and assistance.
Multi-purpose digital literacy non-profits
What they are: Most of these groups support other digital inclusion organizations through services such as collaboration platforms, resource provision, and serving as ambassadors to the digital technology industry.
Who they benefit most: Groups that already have specialized digital literacy projects.
The APCUG is a worldwide information-sharing network of all things technology. They connect member groups so they can offer each other advice and expertise on various technology applications. They also act as liaisons between member groups and technology vendors, so everyone has the right tools they need to do their jobs － including bringing digital literacy to others.
Primary Goal: Help groups devoted to the world of technology by facilitating communications between member groups and industry vendors.
This is a portal full of digital literacy tools to help people and groups instruct others on how to live and participate in the modern digital economy. This includes knowledge on how to use digital technology itself, as well as skills regarding digital technology applications (such as in finance and career advancement). It was created by the Obama administration by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a sub-department of the US Department of Commerce.
Primary Goal: Serve as a valuable resource to practitioners who are delivering digital literacy training and services in their communities.
Note: This was a part of the CDI (Center for Digital Inclusion), which is no longer operating. Their collection of materials is still a valuable resource for digital literacy.
Also known as the “DL4ALL Project”, this was an initiative run through the Center for Digital Inclusion at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, with assistance from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. It used an innovative approach called “Demystifying Technology” to explain not just how digital technology works, but how our cultures, beliefs, values, and social policies shape how we design and use it (and how it shapes those things in return). The aim was to encourage people to experiment with digital technology to build solutions to issues within their communities.
Primary Goal: Encourage movement from passive use of digital technology to co-creation of digital technology innovations by community, in community, and for community.
This project is run out of the Knight School of Communication at Queen’s University in Charlotte, North Carolina (hence the name). Its mission is to help institutions and organizations in Charlotte and its surrounding communities build a state of “digital equity” for the area, where everyone has the tools and skills to participate in local political and economic decision-making. To that end, it offers services such as volunteer educator training, access to computer equipment and labs, a digital literacy curriculum, and promotion and coverage for local digital literacy initiatives.
Primary Goal: Empower organizations to deliver digital inclusion resources to their communities.
Based in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Connected Nation is a non-profit that specializes in developing solutions to digital inequities at the local, state, and national levels. It acts as a bridge between public and private sector institutions to provide tools, analysis, and strategies for building affordable and accessible broadband Internet networks. It also provides digital literacy classes to help people use digital technology for the good of both themselves and their community members.
Primary Goal: Develop and provide tools, resources, and methods to help local communities, states, and federal agencies create and implement solutions to their high-speed Internet and digital technology gaps.
Tech teaching organizations
What they are: These groups teach students how to use digital technology and the Internet once they have access to it. They also help other teachers to pass on their digital literacy skills.
Who they benefit most: People with access to digital technology, but not the know-how to use it.
This is a project of the Public Library Association (which we’ll get to later), funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It’s a portal of self-directed online training courses on fundamental computer and Internet applications and concepts. These include: interacting with different operating systems; searching and navigating the Internet with a web browser; using an email service; online security, privacy, and threats; and some advanced functions such as looking for jobs or buying plane tickets.
Primary Goal: Create an online hub for digital literacy support and training.
Techboomers has been around since late 2014. One of our goals is to build a library of digital literacy courses on how to use popular websites and mobile device apps. The other is to write it in language that those not overly familiar with technology can understand! We also publish guides to basic digital technology concepts, as well as articles on the ways technology can impact people’s lives. Our ultimate guide to digital literacy is one such example. We’re headquartered in Ontario, Canada.
Primary Goal: Improve the quality of life for older adults and other inexperienced technology users by empowering them to learn how to use popular and trusted websites and Internet-based applications.
A digital literacy group from the United Kingdom, Digital Unite is working to revolutionize how tech teaching is done. Their “Digital Champions” program is, at heart, a course on basic computer skills that offers tools for tracking progress and displaying accomplishments. But it goes way beyond that in being an interconnected e-learning platform that allows for peer feedback and teamwork, as well as for new material and resources to be added every so often. The goal is for tech educators to not only continually hone their skills, but to be prepared to pass those skills on to others in a variety of contexts.
Primary Goal: Provide learning and support for Digital Champions and their organizations, in order to help them help others to benefit from digital participation.
Community Tech Network started as an offshoot of TechSoup, a digital equity non-profit that we’ll talk about later. Launched in San Francisco, California in 2001, CTN became its own independent organization in 2008. CTN provides digital literacy training to both volunteer educators and under-served populations in ways that won’t overwhelm adult learners. Believing that Internet use is a human right, they work to limit the number of people who are socially and economically disadvantaged by not having the skills to access information and public services online.
Primary Goal: Unite organizations and volunteers to transform lives through digital literacy.
A non-profit founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 2000, Tech Goes Home is a small organization that’s doing some very big things. Through numerous partnerships with schools and community groups, Tech Goes Home provides digital literacy teaching to young children, students, small businesses, and various other under-served populations. They also work to set up those they teach with low-cost computer equipment and Internet access.
Primary Goal: Tackle the entrenched barriers to technology adoption and Internet access in Boston and across the US.
Places to get free or low-cost tech equipment
What they are: These groups provide digital devices and Internet service to under-served populations – as well as the organizations who help them – at little to no cost.
Who they benefit most: People who have learned how to use digital technology, but have no hardware to call their own.
Founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1998, PCs for People works to bring low-cost computer equipment and broadband Internet service to those who need it. Part of this is their free corporate e-waste recycling program, which lets businesses get rid of their old computers and other digital devices. PCs for People will then repair them and wipe their data so that they can be used by people in need. As of mid-2019, they have distributed over 80,000 refurbished computers and connected over 30,000 people to broadband Internet.
Primary Goal: Provide the opportunity for all low-income individuals and non-profits to benefit from the life-changing impact of computers and mobile Internet.
Mobile Citizen is a project of Voqal, a team of non-profit organizations that license broadband Internet for educational purposes. They’ve partnered with Sprint to offer low-cost wireless Internet and data packages (and mobile wireless Internet hot-spots) to educational institutions, charities, and other non-profit organizations.
Primary Goal: Make Internet access available at an affordable price to advance social equity.
TechSoup works with top digital technology companies to provide discounted or donated products and services to libraries and other digital literacy organizations. They also have several sub-projects that fill specific needs. For example NetSquared provides digital literacy information and training. NGOsource facilitates digital literacy meet-ups and grants. And Caravan Studios helps non-profits develop apps to tackle community-specific challenges.
Primary Goal: Provide the connections, expertise, and resources to unlock the power of tech for social good.
This non-profit was started in 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina by Franny Millen. It was based on two critical questions regarding digital literacy she asked her parents as an elementary school student. First, “How can all kids in our school do their homework and projects successfully if some of their families are too poor to own digital technology?” And second, “What are we going to do about it?”
Since then, “E2D” has partnered with students, volunteers, local officials, and the private sector to study the issue of digital inequity in Charlotte. As of mid-2019, they’ve developed solutions to bridge the digital divide for over 30,000 families in the Charlotte area. That includes providing digital literacy resources such as low-cost computer equipment, Internet access, and computer skills training.
Primary Goal: Ensure that all students have affordable access to essential at-home technology and digital literacy training to support academic success and prepare them for college, careers, and beyond.
Tech exchange & recycling programs
What they are: These groups re-purpose used digital equipment to keep it out of garbage landfills for as long as possible. They often turn it into teaching supplies in the process.
Who they benefit most: Individuals, non-profits, and educational institutions with a need for low-cost computer equipment and/or hands-on experience working with digital technology at its most basic.
Triangle E-Cycling provides a place for businesses and individuals alike to dispose of their unused electronics. Those devices are then refurbished or recycled by high school students as part of a training program for careers in information technology. Triangle E-Cycling then gives any salvaged devices to charities, or sells them at below-market prices to help bridge the digital divide. They are based in Durham, North Carolina.
Primary Goal: Support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education with hands-on tech training for high school students by collecting, refurbishing and recycling end-of-life computers and other electronics.
Ex-IBM employee Bruce Buckelew started Tech Exchange in Oakland, California in 1995. With the assistance of students from Oakland Technical High School, he started refurbishing old computers to donate to needy families. Since then, the organization has expanded to provide other electronics and services to schools, non-profits, and individuals in need. These include affordable broadband Internet, digital skills training, and free technical support.
They also have an internship program that allows students to gain valuable technology experience. This involves hands-on learning through refurbishing electronics, and troubleshooting hardware and software issues.
Primary Goal: Ensure that all families have a computer, Internet access, and the skills with which to put them to use to improve their lives.
This organization takes donations of used computers, electronics, and other office equipment. It then loans them out to schools to be refurbished. This has a double benefit: first, it lets students get hands-on technology training and knowledge. Second, it allows schools to maintain their digital literacy programs at low cost. Whatever can’t be repaired is salvaged for usable parts. “AZStRUT” then sells these parts to local recycling groups to keep themselves funded.
Primary Goal: Support local technical education and a community effort towards a more sustainable future.
This initiative was launched in 2003 by the Basel Action Network in an effort to stop the illegal export of toxic waste to developing countries. It was originally intended to be a certification program promoting best practices in responsible disposal of electronic waste (or e-waste). However, it eventually evolved into a voluntary international e-waste recycling standard. Today, the program works with global leaders in recycling, asset management, certification, health, safety, and environmentalism to create guidelines for disposing of e-waste in the cleanest and most responsible ways possible.
Primary Goal: Define and promote responsible electronics reuse and recycling best practices worldwide.
Where to get digital literacy news & updates
What they are: These groups are monitoring efforts by others to close the digital gap. Many also run digital equity projects themselves.
Who they benefit most: Organizations wanting to launch digital literacy initiatives that may need some ideas on where to start.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is the hometown of the Movement Alliance Project. Formerly known as the Media Mobilizing Project, it’s an organization that assists groups lobbying for justice, equity, and human rights. They produce powerful media campaigns, advocate on behalf of movements, and train community leaders on the organization and communication skills they need to make their voices heard. Check out their work with the Philly Tech Justice Coalition for updates on initiatives to bring digital equity to Philadelphia and beyond.
Primary Goal: Build leaders – leaders who use their stories to make our organizing stronger; and who build the movement for human rights and to end poverty.
Public libraries are key institutions in delivering digital literacy services. The PLA – a division of the American Library Association (ALA) – is one of the biggest governing bodies for them in North America and beyond. As such, they have a news feed on digital equity projects taking place at libraries across the country. Check it out for ideas on initiatives you could launch for your community.
Primary Goal: Strengthen public libraries and their contribution to communities.
Yes, we know Twitter is mainly a social network and not a digital literacy organization. However, it can also be a useful channel for keeping up with the activities of digital literacy groups and movements. Try searching for the hashtag “#digitalliteracy” and see what you find!
Primary Goal: Help people follow their interests, hear what people are talking about, and join the conversation.
Other groups bridging the digital divide
What they are: These groups are – among other efforts – working to raise awareness about the “digital divide”. That includes why it exists; how it impacts people, families, and communities; and the most effective ways to close it.
Who they benefit most: Non-profits, charity groups, and the general public, who may not know much about digital inequity but may be willing and able to help.
“Cyber-Seniors” was originally a documentary film project by Saffron Cassaday. It centered on a high school community service initiative, headed by Cassaday’s sisters, to alleviate social isolation among senior citizens by teaching them digital literacy. Now it’s a full-fledged operation offering resources and teaching models to senior-oriented institutions. They also help schools, youth groups, libraries, and faith-based organizations to run their own digital literacy programs.
Primary Goal: Bridge the digital divide and connect generations through technology.
“CTDG” started in Lansing, Michigan in 2002 as an economic initiative for the city and its surrounding area. They use both new and donated computer equipment to teach low-income individuals, seniors, and other non-profits or start-up companies business-related computer skills. Many participants, after completing the course, receive a computer and low-cost Internet access.
Primary Goal: Provide low-income residents the opportunity to earn a computer, receive basic computer literacy, Internet training, and World Wide Web access. Connect to community resources for employment and/or education for participants and their families.
A non-profit based in Illinois, PBDD was started in 2015 by Barry Glicklich. An employee of the computer and communications industries for over 30 years, Barry wanted to volunteer more of his time. He leaned on his experiences with the People’s Resource Center to create a platform to support existing digital equity non-profits. Today, PBDD is a hub for current digital literacy organizations to discuss best digital teaching practices and promote awareness of each other. It also helps new digital literacy initiatives to have a starting point for getting recognized and developing a digital literacy curriculum.
Primary Goal: Work with digital literacy agencies to improve existing tech training programs and provide help starting new programs in unserved areas.
More reading on digital literacy resources
Those are just some of the generous initiatives that are building bridges across the digital divide in their communities, territories, countries, and even worldwide! If you want to get involved in the fight for digital equity, but need a bit of help getting started, check out some of our other great articles on digital literacy.
Still not entirely sure what digital literacy is, or why and how it’s now critically important in a number of different contexts? These articles can help point you in the right direction.
How do you know if you’re fully digitally literate? How do you know if others are? We cover a framework from the European Commission outlining the specific skills that make up digital literacy. Then, we lay out a process to master them as effectively as possible — and help others do the same!
Want to join the digital equity movement? A good beginning step is to check where you’re at right now in terms of digital competence. This is a list of practical online tests that you can take to determine which digital literacy skills you already have, or still need.
So you’re looking to teach computer and Internet skills. However, you aren’t sure about the most effective ways to instruct your students. Don’t sweat it! We have a list of 7 basic considerations to keep in mind when setting up your framework. It even includes a list of digital literacy websites that you can browse to find modeling and content ideas for your lesson plans.
This is a case study report on a digital literacy course run by St. Mary’s County Library in Leonardtown, Maryland. They used the content on Techboomers.com as their source material. Program coordinator Kathy Faubion will walk you through how it was set up, what participants wanted to know about most, and what worked well (or didn’t). She’ll conclude with lessons from the course that similar programs can build on to be more effective.
One last thing: if you’re an organization promoting digital equity and you want us to feature you on this list, send us an introduction at [email protected]. Also be sure to add a link to our tech training partner resources on your group’s homepage!