Economic Development

Community Partners Look to Boost Digital Literacy

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Increasing awareness of digital resources and how they can be applied in everyday lives is the mission of a working group formed to boost digital literacy in the Mahoning Valley.

About a dozen members representing community organizations that offer technology services, technology firms and elected officials attended a discussion Wednesday in the offices of the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments.

Eastgate is overseeing the digital literacy group, which was formed in the aftermath of a report released last summer that found 37% of households in Mahoning County, many with school-age children, don’t have broadband internet.

The study was conducted by Connect Ohio in partnership with Eastgate, the Oak Hill Collaborative and the Western Reserve Port Authority.

The most common reason those who didn’t have a broadband connection cited was the expense, but another leading reason was they didn’t see a purpose for it, Sara Wenger, economic development program manager at Eastgate.

“The long-term vision of this group is to build up the customer base for fiber and other technologies so that we have more choices and providers and types of service,” Wenger said.

Members of the panel noted several organizations offer classes covering different aspects of digital literacy and how they might use the various programs that are available.

“There seems to be a great need for people to get the education,” said Steve Kristan, director of external affairs for AT&T. The company has offered classes at local senior centers that have been very popular, he said, and suggested partnering with the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County. The library offers several computer education programs including Girls Who Code, an initiative aimed at closing the gender gap in technology.

To get people to use the internet, they first have to know how to use it, said Pat Kerrigan, executive director of Oak Hill Collaborative. “They have to know what they’re missing,” he added. Customer growth will give access providers greater incentive to invest in expanding options and capabilities.

“A really, really important first step is to know what classes are out there, who’s teaching them, what’s available,” Kerrigan said.

Kerrigan is compiling the various digital courses that are available in the area and what providers are offering.

“The biggest disappointment is sometimes you don’t get enough people to sign up for these classes,” he said. He has started posting the programs the library offers on Facebook.

People frequently will call the library to ask where the computer classes are taking place, said Deborah Liptak, development director for the library. “That’s telling you that the disconnect is they don’t know about it,” she said.

One service that appeared to excite several members of Wednesday’s panel as a potential vehicle to boost digital literacy and interest is Hoopla, the library’s app that allows patrons to borrow e-books, audio books, music and movies on computes or mobile devices. The library added Hoopla in 2013 and the number of items available on the service has grown substantially.

As Liptak described the service, several members of the working group downloaded it to their smartphones.

Liptak noted Hoopla use increased following a recent promotion in conjunction with the Western Reserve Transit Authority.

“What we saw was a lot of young people who for the first time realized that they could download music for free,” she said.

The service gained additional exposure Tuesday night during a promotion with the Youngstown Phantoms, she reported. “It’s really a good strategic goal that we’ve got to get the word out as to what all these partners have to offer,” she added.

Pictured: Community partners, including Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County and congressional representatives, met to discuss how to boost digital literacy.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.