I spent the last two days attending the National Digital Inclusion Alliance Net Inclusion conference in St Paul. Actually I spent a good chunk of the last couple months helping to plan for the conference. It brought about 200 practitioners and researchers to the area. We learned about what’s going on in other places and we got to show off some of the things Minnesota is doing right. They have PowerPoints and other materials from the conference on the website – so I won’t detail the conference as I often would but thought I’d touch on some high level points and a few stories that struck me.
I hear a lot about the three-legged stool of digital inclusion:
- Access to equipment
- Affordable broadband
Turns out Minnesota has some pretty good solutions for addressing each.
Access to Equipment – PCs for People
I have written about PCs for People before. They take donated computer, refurbish them and distribute them to low income folks. One story we all love was in Lac qui Parle County. PC for People was distributing computers through the school in December. One woman with tears in her eyes thanked the volunteers as she explained that now she didn’t have to choose between food or Christmas presents. They also repair computers affordably and offer some quick and dirty support to get people started on their computers.
PCs for People is branching out. They are working in other areas such as Denver and Kansas City. They have a good model (for collection, refurbishing, distribution) and it’s working other places.
Training – Northstar Digital Standards
I’ve done a lot of training – how to build a website, use social media, remember the password your grandson used to set up your Hotmail. We all want to build our own curriculum. We might start by borrowing heavily from someone else’s but I think most of us want to have some ownership – we want our own examples. So I’m always a little jaded when it comes to shared curriculum. The Northstar Digital Standards isn’t a curriculum (well they have curriculum too), it’s a set of standards around which you can build a curriculum – like school standards. And it sets a bar that helps folks in the industry – trainers, students and potential employers understand what it means to have received the “email” certificate.
Trainers use testing to figure out where a student in on the ladder of digital inclusion sophistication. Do you know how to use a mouse? Can email with ease? Build a spreadsheet in your sleep? Once that benchmark has been set a student can start learning at a place and pace that’s appropriate for them. There is curriculum you can use of again build your own based on the standards. Students pick up various certificates demonstrating proficiency. And employers can use to understand skill sets. Used to be you could give your word-per-minute typing proficiency and get hired based on that – not a certificate works. Northstar is being used in a number of places in and out of Minnesota. Some attendees got to see it in action on the site tour to PPL. (I did a post earlier about the site tours where attendees bused of walked to various places around the Twin Cities with digital inclusion programs.)
Affordable Access – Office of Broadband Development
The conference was not rural-focused. Many attendees were from urban areas and we heard from Mobile Citizen, which has options for low cost service and Comcast Internet Essentials was a sponsor. But when it came to access for rural areas – the Minnesota got a nice nod for $65 million invested in broadband grants in the last few years and the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development got a nice nod for distributing funds throughout state.
There was also a heated discussion on the FCC and future of Net Neutrality. A lot of discussion on data and what we can learn from evaluation. Evaluation is hard – especially for folks on the frontlines. I don’t that’s a technology-only issue but to make the case to funder and policy makers assessment and evaluation is key.