Tech Goes Home Chattanooga enables digital literacy countywide
“We, like all cities and counties, have an issue of a digital divide,” says Kelly McCarthy. “People throw the term around all the time, but I’m not a huge fan of the term.” And while some people dismiss the idea of a digital divide because so many have Internet access on a smart phone, McCarthy says the issue is much deeper than lack of Internet access.
“Think about everything you do in a day that requires a computer or a smart phone or Internet access, then think about what you would do if you had none of those things every single day of your life,” she says.
“Generational poverty, socioeconomic status, educational disadvantages—there are so many things that go into that. You’re not just going to help someone get a computer and Internet access and their whole life is going to change. But you can’t expect their lives to change if they don’t have these things. That’s the reality.”
Twenty years into the age of Internet it’s difficult, if not impossible, to compete educationally or in the job market if you lack Internet access and the knowledge of how to use the resources you could find there.
McCarthy is the program director of Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, a digital literacy program of The Enterprise Center designed to help people in Chattanooga and Hamilton County cross that divide. They are working to change the lack of access and knowledge by offering a program of hands-on training, subsidizing the cost of a Google Chromebook or iPad mini and helping people understand their options for connectivity.
“This is very much a program aimed at people who don’t have any of these things and helping them catch up and move forward,” she says.
Participants go through a 15-hour course that teaches the basics of how to use the computer by walking them through 25 curated web resources in topics like money management, saving for college, health care, and Internet safety for children. Trainers tailor their instruction to the needs and interests of participants at different sites, serving both children and adults in urban and rural settings. Through a partnership with La Paz de Dios, some classes are taught in English and Spanish.
“We’re trying very hard to disperse the sites we work with, because part of the program is about going to people where they are. “
For many people, there is a psychological barrier to overcome in stepping outside of their comfort zone. That’s why classes offered in churches are some of the most successful.
“When we started, our first six sites had to take a huge leap of faith because we were brand new,” says McCarthy. “We were saying, ‘you can learn all these great skills, you’re going to become super comfortable using the computer, you’re going to get a brand new computer for $50 and we’ll help you sign up for Internet.’ It sounds too good to be true, I recognized that. We had some very brave souls that tried it.”
Just over a year later, the program has grown rapidly through word of mouth. The current round of classes, under way at 18 sites throughout Hamilton County, is reaching 335 individuals. So far, 729 individuals in 497 families have been through the program, and 483 subsidized devices (either a Chromebook or an iPad Mini for younger students) have been provided.
Plans call for more than doubling those numbers in 2016. Students range in age from 4 to 84. About 72 percent are female, 76 percent are African-American or Latino, nearly 40 percent are unemployed and at least 65 percent earn less than $30,000 per year.
Tech Goes Home Chattanooga was adapted from a successful program created in Boston. The curriculum is used in other locations around the country, but ours is the first countywide program and the second largest implementation of the program outside Boston, according to McCarthy.
For information on volunteering as a teacher or establishing a class site, visit techgoeshomecha.org
Rich Bailey is a professional writer, editor and (sometimes) PR consultant. He led a project to create Chattanooga’s first civic website in 1995 before even owning a modem. Now he covers Chattanooga technology for The Pulse and blogs about it at CircleChattanooga.com