Digital Access for All team

From Ideas to Action: The Evolution of Digital Access for All

Posted on January 05, 2022 by John Ferguson, TPF Fellow 2020/21

In March 2020, the world changed due to an emerging global pandemic. So many aspects of life came to a screeching halt, and much of how we normally interacted with the world quickly shifted to a virtual format. While many had the necessary skills and the means to navigate our newly-digital environment, countless people did not, and the digital divide became more acute and impossible to ignore.

One of the most dramatic and rapid shifts was the overnight switch to online learning in schools across the country. As schools faced challenges, it became clear that not all students had the same ability to participate. Stable internet connections, devices, and digital skills varied widely among the diverse families trying to work, live, play, and learn remotely–all at the same time.

Those challenges became the focal point of many conversations with school leaders and other partners. Beth Duda, director of Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (SCGLR), noticed early on that this was a complex challenge that could not be solved with a singular solution. It also became clear that the need for digital access extended far beyond the classroom. This challenge affected everyone, especially ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) families.

Before we could help identify what solutions may be appropriate, we needed to understand the problems thoroughly. Rather than arriving with the answers, all we had were questions...questions that needed to be explored before even broaching the idea of a solution.

In June 2020, TPF's Digital Access for All (DA4A) initiative was born. In true TPF fashion, DA4A launched an exploration grounded in curiosity and possibility. Guided by TPF's innovative approach CLSES — Connecting, Learning, Sharing, Evolving, and Strengthening — we set out to explore digital access and all of its nooks and crannies.

The goal was to thoroughly understand the issues at play around digital access, connect with others in the community to see where there might be alignment and potential for collaboration, and share our findings as widely as possible to strengthen new and already existing efforts. Under the leadership of Dr. Laurey Stryker, we dove in.

Our journey began with a single conversation with a national thought-leader in the digital equity space. In a few months, we connected more than 50 times with other leaders and continually asked, "Who else should we talk to?" Each conversation, like the mythical hydra, led to several more. Those connections on both the national and local levels would prove to be invaluable as we began to wrap our arms around the issue and understand it more deeply. They exposed us to the latest research concerning digital equity, which led to creating a robust research library boasting over 165 report summaries curated by DA4A consultant Kiarra Louis.

It became clear that there were three essential elements of digital access: connectivity, devices, and skills/support. For there to be a viable solution to providing equitable digital access for all, each element had to be addressed. We began to share our findings and highlight local stories through TPF's Aspirations Journalism (AJ) initiative, a partnership with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The talented AJ team created more than 30 insightful articles supported by research. All the while, we continued to explore and expand our understanding while building new relationships with experts in the field. DA4A also launched its monthly newsletter highlighting important information and promising developments in the arena of digital equity. An average open rate of more than 40% affirmed the value of these publications, which continue today.

In November 2020, we held our first "webversation" (TPF's lingo for an interactive virtual conversation) to share our findings with and learn from other local partners engaged in this important work. It was a smashing success and led to regular webversations with an ever-expanding group of interested leaders from various organizations from different backgrounds and scopes, but all united in addressing digital equity.

We noticed that many were focused on one element or another, but rarely all three. This was where another opportunity emerged. Great people from dedicated organizations were working on this issue in various ways, but they had no way of knowing who else was working on digital access and in what way. Under the leadership of former DA4A consultant Jake Hartvigsen, the Digital Access Services Matrix was created. This tool is a way to track who in the community is doing what within digital access. It aims to foster more meaningful collaborations and partnerships and raise awareness of the life-changing work by so many organizations locally and beyond.

Yet another opportunity emerged due to these webversations: the Digital Navigator Program. The idea of training a staff member (or volunteer) to work with a client in a case-management style, addressing all three essential elements of digital access, was well-received and quite popular. As a result, TPF engaged digital equity expert Maribel Martinez to develop a new curriculum for training digital navigators to excel in that critical role. The first cohort concluded in November of 2021, and a second cohort will be starting in early 2022.

These programs and resources were developed in direct response to expressed needs and desires of our collaborating partners. No isolated resource can provide digital access for all, but meaningful progress is possible when multiple solutions are woven together. As we move into the next phase of DA4A, we will continue to be responsive to the ever-evolving needs of our community with equitable digital access for all people guiding our efforts.

We are proud of what we have accomplished together so far within the first 18 months of DA4A. Here's an at-a-glance look at the highlights of our journey so far.

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As you can see, it has been quite a journey. With initiative manager Cheri Coryea at the helm, DA4A is well-positioned to continue providing valuable resources to ensure equitable digital access for all. Our society is more and more digital by the day, and to fully participate, digital access is not just nice to have; it is essential for anyone to realize their full potential and for our communities to thrive.

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