States are leading the way on digital equity

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, March 22, 2022

Congress passed the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act as part of the infrastructure legislation last November, and funding will begin rolling out to states later this spring. But some states aren’t waiting for federal action to get going on digital equity. These examples from Colorado, Hawai’i, and North Carolina can help workforce and adult education advocates identify potentially useful ideas or tactics for their own communities. This post is part of a larger series of research and policy resources that NSC is providing to help skills advocates incorporate digital upskilling into their education and workforce development policy agendas, and to prepare for the Digital Equity Planning process that every state will be undertaking starting in Summer 2022.

NSC will be highlighting other state innovations on digital equity in the months to come, as well as sharing information on the rollout of federal funding. Make sure to sign on to NSC’s Digital Skills @ Work principles to ensure you get all the latest updates on this important topic.

Hawai’i: A national trailblazer on digital skills assessment

When the pandemic hit, Hawai’i state officials moved quickly to establish an informal working group, known as the Broadband Hui, that began meeting weekly to address rapidly evolving digital inclusion needs among the islands’ far-flung population. While broadband access was a central focus, the group also recognized the vital importance of digital devices and digital skills to Hawaii residents. The state’s forward-looking Broadband Strategic Plan spells out specific objectives related to digital literacy that agency officials and other Hui members continue to pursue.

Meanwhile, Hawai’i’s Department of Labor & Industrial Relations (DLIR) was conducting a sophisticated two-part Digital Literacy and Readiness Study, the results of which were released in late 2021. The study is the most robust state-level digital skills data collection and analysis completed to date, and sets a benchmark for other states to replicate.

First, the state contracted with polling firm Omnitrak to administer a detailed digital readiness survey via telephone, thus ensuring that the survey’s randomized sampling process reached individuals who might not have digital access. Second, those respondents to the telephone survey who did report having digital access were asked to complete a second, online component of the survey to assess their digital skills.

The study’s results were rich and detailed (see results beginning on page 17). Findings were disaggregated by geography (helping to isolate differences between rural and urban Hawai’i residents); by ethnicity (including within the islands’ very diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander populations); and by income, age, gender, household size, and educational attainment, among other variables.

Among other topics, respondents answered questions on seven self-reported aspects of readiness:

  • Confidence in using digital devices
  • Ability to get new technology to work
  • Productivity from using electronic information devices
  • Ability to determine the trustworthiness of online information
  • Perception of info overload from electronic devices
  • Use of digital tools for learning
  • Familiarity with contemporary “education tech” terms

Overall, the study found that Hawai’i residents’ digital skills are distributed among five broad categories. Approximately 40% of survey respondents were characterized as less digitally ready (including 17% who were characterized as “Unprepared” and 23% labeled the “Old Guard”). The analysis found that people in these categories tend to be less willing to embrace technology in learning; more likely to need help setting up new digital devices; and have low confidence in their computer skills.

The remaining 60% of respondents were characterized as more digitally ready (including 26% characterized as “Digital Learners,” 15% labeled “Technical DIYers,” and 19% tagged as “Social Users”). Individuals in these categories are more likely to be ardent or active learners, confident about their technology skills, and familiar with online learning.

Building on the momentum generated by the study, state leaders are now pursuing the first stage of the Hoʻoikaika [Strengthening] Framework for Hawai‘i Digital Literacy and Readiness proposed by the study’s authors. The framework includes three stages:

  • A business survey stage to help establish a baseline measurement of current digital transformation of Hawai‘i businesses and understand digital skills needed by the employers (currently underway via the use of the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment to gauge incumbent workers’ skills)
  • An experimentation stage that will examine the effectiveness of DLIR’s workforce resilience training in a laboratory environment to enhance the reliability of the intervention;
  • An implementation stage that will investigate whether these resilience interventions will help prepare Hawai‘i’s workforce of the future and help Hawai‘i businesses succeed in their digital transformation.

View all study results and see the exact survey instrument used for Hawai’i’s telephone survey in the full report.

North Carolina: Laying the local groundwork for statewide digital equity

In North Carolina, the combination of bottom-up efforts at the local level combined with top-down work at the state level are combining to create bold steps toward digital equity. The Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University is supporting a wealth of digital inclusion activities through its Building a New Digital Economy in NC (BAND-NC) initiative. A key focus is helping local counties to develop digital equity plans to inform their own work as well as the broader state planning that will be occurring later this year under the federal Digital Equity Act.

Across the state, at least 18 counties are developing digital equity plans, 12 of which are already completed. Digital skills are an integral part of these plans, though details differ by area. For example, Forsythe County’s plan emphasizes the importance of respecting adults’ existing skills and helping them build toward digital fluency, without stigmatizing them as being in need of remedial digital literacy training. Similarly, the plan notes that residents who speak Spanish as a first language may be interested in digital skill-building opportunities offered in that language, especially if they are still developing their English language skills.

At the state level, in July 2021 North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper established the nation’s first state-level Office of Digital Equity and Literacy, which sits within the state’s Department of Information Technology, Division of Broadband and Digital Equity (DBDE). Governor Cooper also worked with the legislature to invest nearly $1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to achieve digital equity in North Carolina by addressing infrastructure, access and digital literacy. An additional $50 million is committed for a digital literacy awareness campaign and digital literacy offerings around the state.

In addition, the state’s Division of Broadband and Digital Equity (DBDE) offers a digital inclusion plan template for local areas to use as a guide. (Note that this template was produced before federal guidance on Digital Equity Planning requirements has been released, and therefore does not fully reflect what each state will be required to do under the Digital Equity Act.)

Colorado: A faster, cheaper way to get data on state residents’ digital skills

When Colorado state leaders realized that the best available data on people’s digital skills was national in scope, they rolled up their sleeves. In the short term, they didn’t have capacity or funding to conduct a full-scale digital skills survey of state residents.

What they did have was the ability to add a few digital skills questions to existing surveys that state government agencies were already scheduled to send out. Colorado Office of the Future of Work director Katherine Keegan worked with colleagues in the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment to include those questions in a health survey. As outlined in a recent NSC Twitter thread, they quickly got useful results, helping them to affirm that key aspects of national data on racial disparities in digital inclusion unfortunately hold true in Colorado. (Scroll to the bottom of this post to see the specific questions Colorado used.)

The state’s formal engagement in the digital equity field stretches beyond this effort, and includes a 2020 gubernatorial executive order (updated in 2021) to establish an advisory committee on broadband. That committee includes a Subcommittee on Digital Literacy and Inclusion working to ensure every Coloradan has digital skills for work, learning and daily life, as well as access to technology, connectivity and equipment needed to meet their needs. (Members of NSC’s Skills2Compete Colorado coalition are represented on the subcommittee.)

A useful resource developed by the subcommittee is this Digital Equity Framework, which addresses both individual-level and systems-level digital needs.

Appendix: Digital equity questions used by Colorado in state resident surveys

(adapted by Colorado officials from the Census Bureau and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s Skill Assessment)

#0 Comfort with Technology and the Internet

  1. How frequently do you check your email?
  2. Several times a day
  3. Once a day
  4. A couple times a week
  5. Can’t remember
  6. I don’t have an email address
  1. How often do you use social media such as Facebook and Twitter?
  2. Several times a day
  3. Once a day
  4. A couple times a week
  5. Can’t remember
  6. I don’t use social media
  1. I feel confident using the Internet
  2. Agree
  3. Neither agree/nor disagree
  4. Disagree
  1. I use the Internet to find out about events in my community
  2. Agree
  3. Neither agree/nor disagree
  4. Disagree
  1. I use the Internet to connect with family and friends
  2. Agree
  3. Neither agree/nor disagree
  4. Disagree
  1. Do you have access to the internet using a: (choose all that apply)
    1. Cellular data plan for a smartphone or other mobile device
    2. Broadband (high speed) internet service such as cable, fiber optic, or DSL service installed in this household
    3. Satellite internet service installed in this household
    4. Dial-up Internet service installed in this household
    5. Some other service
    6. N/A – I don’t have internet access