Connect to Compete: FCC Launches Digital Literacy Coalition

By Susan Hildreth
Director, IMLS

photo of Susan Hildreth behind a "Connect to Compete" podiumIf all goes according to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s plan, libraries are going to have a lot of help closing “America’s digital skills gap.” On October 12, I participated in the unveiling of Connect to Compete, a public-private partnership to turn around the problem of digital exclusion in the US.

According to the Pew Research Center, one-third of all Americans – 100 million people – have not adopted broadband high-speed Internet at home. The national announcement is the first major action by Chairman Genachowski’s Broadband Adoption Task force, created in May to help close the adoption gap. And it aligns with our work at IMLS to create new tools to help communities work together to create “digitally inclusive communities!

I am happy to report that libraries were front and center as part of the solution. A big message from the Chairman was the need to increase the number of libraries that offer digital literacy training. There are four big reasons why libraries must be at the heart of this work:

1) Libraries have a strong geographic distribution.

Distribution of Public Libraries by State
Number of libraries per 100,000 people, FY 2009
Map showing distribution of public libraries in the US
Source: Public Library Survey, FY 2009, Institute of Museum and Library Services.

2) The public is at the library. The number of visits per capita has steadily increased over time, and since 2006 the frequency of use has increased sharply.

3) Libraries are the nation’s defacto digital literacy corps. Nearly 60% of urban public libraries offer formal digital literacy training, 46% of suburban libraries and 25% of rural libraries.

Type of Technology Assistance Provided by Metropolitan Status, 2010-2011
Chart showing percentages of populations offering technology assistance
Source: Bertot, J.C., Sigler, K., DeCoster, E., McDermott, A., Katz, S.M., Langa, L.A., & Grimes, J.M. (2011). 2010-2011 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Survey: Survey Findings & Report. College Park,MD: Information Policy & Access Center, University of Maryland College Park.

4)  The public has made serious financial investment in library technology in the last 10 years. That investment is particularly striking in rural areas which report 6 computers/5,000 people while urban areas report just 2 computers/5,000. That is infrastructure that must be refreshed and maintained for any digital literacy campaign to succeed.

The Chairman called for an “all hands on deck” and announced commitments from private-sector companies and the support of non-profit groups including:

  • Best Buy to put its 20,000 Geek Squad Agents to work nationwide to train Americans in basic digital literacy.
  • Microsoft to offer basic and advanced digital literacy training and certification. Beginning in 15 states over the next three years, Microsoft will work with its partners to deploy training in Microsoft Office through schools, libraries community colleges, and online.
  • In addition Arise Virtual Solutions, CareerBuilder.com, Monster.com, Discovery Education, MetrixLearning, Brainfuse, and Sesame Workshop all made commitments to provide training and resources for digital literacy and workforce development.
  • Grass-roots organizations are also taking action to help build a national seamless web of digital literacy trainers, including the Boys and Girls Club, Goodwill, 4H, and members of the Broadband Opportunity Coalition: The Asian American Justice Center, National Council of La Raza (NCLR), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), National Urban League, One Economy, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Minority and Media Telecommunications Council (MMTC).

To coordinate this effort, Chairman Genochowski announced that a new non-profit would host educational content, develop a database with digital literacy classes, and help train digital literacy instructors across the country.

It was exciting to see so much energy and enthusiasm to get to work in communities across the country and we look forward to the leadership role of libraries in combating the high cost of digital exclusion in the U.S.

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