Amanda Bergson-Shilcock: The digital divide is also about the policies that affect ordinary people's lives - Generocity Philly

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May 28, 2019 4:15 pm

Amanda Bergson-Shilcock: The digital divide is also about the policies that affect ordinary people’s lives

In a wide-ranging conversation with Generocity, Bergson-Shilcock takes a look at the digital divide in terms of adult education, pending legislation, the diverse digital experiences of immigrants, and the need for digital ethics.

The Digital Equity Act would be a big leap forward, said Bergson-Shilcock, providing $240 million in grants to states to support digital inclusion and upskilling efforts.

(Photo from Pixabay)

In 2012 Amanda Bergson-Shilcock worked on a white paper for the Welcoming Center for New PennsylvaniansThe Digital Diaspora — which exploded stereotypes and expanded understanding about tech adoption and digital competence in the Philadelphia immigrant community.

Now working with the National Skills Coalition, we asked Bergson-Shilcock not only to think of how the digital diaspora has changed in the seven years since that white paper, but also about how her work with adult education and immigrant integration at the NSC continues to address issues of the digital divide.

Here is our Q&A with her.


Amanda Bergson-Shilcock.

Generocity: In your work at the National Skills Coalition you deal with issues of digital divide — how do they most commonly manifest?

Amanda Bergson-Shilcock: I’m a policy advocate who focuses on job training and adult education issues. These days, that means not only making sure people have the reading and math skills they need to succeed, but also digital skills. As governors, mayors, and congresspeople try to plan for the “Future of Work,” one big issue that keeps coming up is re-skilling or upskilling — that is, making sure that people who already have jobs have opportunities to learn and grow as their jobs change.

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I’m working on two projects right now that are coming up with recommendations about how policymakers can invest in digital skill-building opportunities as part of the Future of Work — one through my own organization, National Skills Coalition, and another in collaboration with partners at World Education’s EdTech Center and others. The results will be made public in early 2020. Stay tuned!

How tied together are issues of ownership of a device, access to reliable broadband service and training/ease/familiarity with digital possibilities? Does the divide always have a financial component?

Bergson-Shilcock: If you have a computer and broadband internet access at home, it’s not surprising that you would have more of an opportunity to build your digital skills. Unfortunately, many Americans, especially those who earn less than $30,000 per year, don’t have such access.

But it’s not all about income or financial resources. A respected international assessment known as the PIAAC recently showed that in general, U.S. adults had relatively low scores on “Problem-Solving in Technology-Rich Environments” compared to their peers in other industrialized countries. (See here for a chart showing the scores of US 16-24 year-olds compared to their foreign peers.)

This wordy term, often abbreviated as PS-TRE, refers to people being able to navigate, say, a website in order to find key information. Test yourself on the PS-TRE questions here.

The good news is that thousands of public libraries in the US offer help in using and building your digital skills —via public computer access, broadband internet connections, and assistance with accessing electronic resources.

You worked extensively with immigrants in Philadelphia, and are really familiar with their digital access needs — what can you tell me about it? Also, you say immigrants are both ingenious digitally, and may be used to a more fully digital experience. Can you elaborate a little?

Bergson-Shilcock: Well, I think the first thing to remember is that immigrants in Philadelphia, even more so than nationally, are extremely diverse. The umbrella category of “immigrant” encompasses a huge variety of income levels, educational attainment, English skills, age, workplace experience — you name it. So for example, the digital skills needed by a Haitian woman who works in a home health job may differ from a Pakistani man who is a customer service representative.

But it’s also true that their digital experience may differ. The Haitian woman is coming from a country where radio is very, very widely used. She may be accustomed to not only getting news or entertainment via radio, she may herself have used radio as a tool to broadcast information or organize her community. So perhaps when she gets here to the U.S., downloading a mobile app so she can access Kreyol language radio is going to be an obvious first step. To take another example, you might have a Kenyan immigrant who is used to using the mobile money service M-Pesa to move funds, and is surprised to find out that the U.S. banking system doesn’t typically offer the same functionality.

"The trick to overcoming fragmented knowledge is to make sure that people have bridges to go from the familiar to the new."
Amanda Bergson-Shilcock

In both cases, these immigrants may have digital experience that is not shared by their American-born peers — or even their fellow immigrants. At the same time, their tech skills may be what is called “fragmented knowledge”. That’s the idea that people learn how to use technology to do a specific task that they urgently need to do, but they may not have the skills to do other tasks that could help them improve their lives.

The trick to overcoming fragmented knowledge is to make sure that people have bridges to go from the familiar to the new. Maybe they haven’t used an online tool to check their kids’ homework, or designed a simple website for their new business, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn.

If we want to help people learn — whether they are immigrants or U.S.-born — they typically need three things: access, equipment, and coaching. You can get each of these things in different ways, but in general, we need policymakers to invest in systems that can reach all people. We’ve done this before as a country in efforts like our rural broadband investments, and we can definitely do it again.

What do you see as the greatest challenge in bridging the digital divide? What are the practices, organizations, individuals who are making a difference?

Bergson-Shilcock: I like to say that there are always at least two perspectives to look at a problem — the bird’s-eye view and the worm’s-eye view. Both are important! So when we talk about the digital divide, we’re talking about the ordinary challenges of ordinary people, and here there are hundreds of organizations doing really good work. I’ll flag a couple of examples — Cell-Ed is helping hotel housekeepers, farmworkers and others learn English through mobile phones, and Code 2040 is ensuring that people of color— especially Black and Latinx individuals — have an equitable shot at careers in the tech industry,

But the digital divide is also about the policies that affect ordinary people’s lives. Elected officials can choose to make investments in people’s skills, and they can choose to make sure that those investments reach the working adults who need them the most. One example is the Digital Equity Act, which was introduced in Congress last month by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and colleagues. If it passes, this legislation would be a big leap forward, providing $240 million in grants to states to support digital inclusion and upskilling efforts.

Why are digital access initiatives almost always geared toward children/young people — aren’t they the most digitally adept? Wouldn’t efforts to improve access and/or educate adults make more sense?

Bergson-Shilcock: Digital efforts are often geared toward younger people because all education and training opportunities in our society tend to be geared toward children (our K-12 system) or perceived young adults (higher education). I say “perceived” because the majority of college students today are actually not 18-22 year olds.

Organizations like mine are working to shift policymakers’ thinking and encourage governors, state legislators, Congress to be more creative in their investments in adult workers. There have been some clear successes — including the 2014 reauthorization of landmark federal legislation known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act — but much more remains to be done. Our 2019 Skills for Good Jobs agenda lays out some practical, bipartisan ideas.

Tell me more about your Digital Diaspora white paper and if you were writing it now, what you would change?

Bergson-Shilcock: I wrote the Digital Diaspora paper when I worked at my previous job. The goal was just to interview a hundred or so immigrants and find out how they were using mobile phones and other technology. This was back in 2012, and I think the report surprised a lot of people — we found that immigrants were actually more likely to be using mobile phones for a variety of purposes, as compared to the general U.S. public as measured by the Pew Internet and American Life project.

If I were doing it again today, I’d want to do more qualitative interviews! Those are so valuable in helping provide vivid illustrations of the real-life ways that people are using technology, When I did the first report, I got stories I would never have imagined — like a street vendor using his mobile phone to text photos of new merchandise to his best customers, or someone running an immigrant radio station off of a laptop and a free conference call line.

"We're already seeing documented examples of companies silently weeding out job applicants just because their computer system detects that the applicant is using an 'old' web browser."
Amanda Bergson-Shilcock

But today, I’d also want to ask about ways in which *not* having tech access had hurt people’s ability to do things they wanted to do. We know that sometimes you need to have a full computer — not just a phone or tablet — in order to apply for public benefits or complete an online job application. I’d want to know how not having a computer or broadband access had affected people’s lives.

And I would want to interview some data scientists and ethicists. We’re already seeing documented examples of companies silently weeding out job applicants just because their computer system detects that the applicant is using an “old” web browser. Currently, our algorithms are much more sophisticated than our shared understanding of how these digital tools can either shut people out of opportunity or help to overcome our all-too-human biases. Ethicists can help us make sense of these tensions.

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