One individual came into the Okemah, Oklahoma, library because he needed help learning how to post items like homemade crafts and fresh produce to the Facebook marketplace. In Pauls Valley, a woman said she was no longer afraid to use her phone and its many functions.
Both visits took place during sessions with digital navigators at libraries in rural communities across Oklahoma.
A partnership between Oklahoma State University and AARP Oklahoma has made reaching rural residents and sharing information and knowledge about digital connectivity easier with the help of digital navigators. These are trained local residents who have been selected to help people learn digital literacy. It can mean everything from how to access Broadband Internet to setting up a Facebook account to how to get an email address and receive email.
As more business and more life takes place online, and the pandemic continues to change how organizations go about sharing information through online spaces, learning how to navigate the Internet is critical to remaining in communication with loved ones, to be able to apply for jobs, and more.
“We had the idea that we would go into rural places that were struggling with connectivity, and partner with their rural libraries, to give them hotspot devices to help them with the connectivity situation,” said Brian Whitacre, a professor of Agricultural Economics and Extension Specialist for Rural Economic Development Oklahoma State University Extension, in a zoom interview.
At the end of 2021, the entities were able to pilot the digital navigator programs at five rural locations: Haskell, Blackwell, Okemah, Davis and Pauls Valley.
“Our issues are making sure older Oklahomans and Americans are able to use telehealth, and they can connect with their loved ones for preventing isolation, but also their job opportunities. If you don’t have high speed internet, you can’t apply for jobs, you can’t connect with your loved ones far away,” Sean Voskuhl, AARP Oklahoma State Director, told The Daily Yonder.
In rural parts of Oklahoma, the rate of availability for Broadband is behind the national average, Whitacre noted.
“In our rural areas, we’re very far behind the national average in terms of what’s available to us. And of course, that does translate to who actually has connectivity in their house, who can afford to pay for connection,” he said. “And so what I think this program is more focused on is improving that adoption rate, getting people to have actual connectivity in their house. There is some other work in the state going on. It’s trying to get at this availability question. And, of course, there’s money coming down from the federal government for infrastructure investment as well.”
Both Voskuhl and Whitacre noted the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which replaces the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program. The ACP provides $30 per month to eligible households. The amount remains at $75 for households on Tribal lands.
Though the pilot program between OSU and AARP ended at the end of 2021, both men said they believe there will be possibilities for collaboration and work in this field going forward, particularly with the Digital Equity Act, a provision of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Digital Equity Act will provide $2.75 billion over five years to promote digital equity, literacy, and inclusion initiatives at the local, state and national levels.
For libraries, this could mean offering skills classes in digital literacy to community members and adopting workforce advancement programs, among other things.
“I hope it’s a blueprint for not only Oklahoma but other states too,” said Voskuhl.