In today’s rapidly evolving job market, one key to success for young professionals is digital literacy. As the workplace becomes increasingly shaped by media and technology, the bridge to digital literacy comes from digital equity.
“You can’t talk about media literacy without talking about media equity and access issues,” says Margaret Käufer, president of The STEM Alliance in Larchmont. “Workforce development has been looking at media literacy for a while, but digital equity has to be first.”
The STEM Alliance is a nonprofit that enhances STEM education and learning opportunities for all people. They also bridge systemic gaps by providing people with equal access to science, technology, and innovation. Currently, around 50,000 households in Westchester County have no internet service, according to The STEM Alliance.
“Thousands of people in our area lack reliable internet or, beyond that, they lack a device,” Käufer says. “Digital equity has three areas: device access, internet access, and media literacy skills.”
Digital equity is the concept that everyone should have the same access to technology and internet. It starts with access and then moves to digital literacy, which is the ability to find, use, and communicate information using technology, according to the American Library Association.
The STEM Alliance recently teamed up with AT&T and launched a new digital navigator program called Digital Pathways to help narrow the digital divide throughout Westchester County. Through the navigator program, The STEM Alliance accepts intake forms that identify and address people’s needs.
“You have to look first at digital equity and see if people have ownership of a device,” Käufer says. “Our goal is one-to-one device ownership in households. Once you have that, then you can move to basic media literacy skills.”
When community members reach out with a device need, The STEM Alliance works to provide them with Google Chromebook devices whenever possible. Since August 2020, the organization has served over 2,300 clients.
When people are looking to become digitally literate, The STEM Alliance puts them into an education community-based program. They have specific programs to help families, senior citizens, and young adults. In the programs, community members will learn basic digital literacy skills to help them navigate devices while also gaining a basic understanding of critical skills needed in today’s workforce.
“What we found is that even just 15 hours of digital literacy skills education is huge for development,” Käufer says. “We taught people basic skills such as Google Docs and Google Calendar. They were so grateful.”
The focus at The STEM Alliance is to give people basic skills. Käufer says that more employers are asking potential employees to have digital literacy skills and people in the digital divide want to learn the skills. During program sessions, people will learn basic skills such as hyperlinking and attaching documents to an email.
“Every company is going to have specific software they use,” Käufer says. “For example, if you learn how to create formulas in Google Sheets, you can transfer those skills to other platforms.”
Common skills that employers look for in students are general computer skills, research skills, adaptability, communication, and collaboration skills, according to the University of the Potomac. Students who are digitally literate can use their skills to get ahead in the workplace.
“We have to prime people to use technology,” Käufer says. “We do this by making sure they have a device, internet access, and then the skills. People always want to fund education, but you have to address digital equity first. It’s the whole package.”
In the future, The STEM Alliance staff also hopes that they can get funding to send students off to college with MacBooks instead of Chromebooks. Chromebooks are less expensive than MacBooks, but students can’t always accomplish the same goals as their peers on the device.
“It’s hard to be on the same level as other students when the digital divide exists,” Käufer says. “Even when they have a device, it doesn’t have the same power and capabilities as their peer’s devices.”
Beyond The STEM Alliance, people in Westchester looking for digital equity or literacy resources can go to their public library or the Carver Center. A library card gives anyone access to the internet and devices where they can practice and learn new digital skills. The Carver Center also offers after-school programs for students where they can use devices and receive academic support.
For students to be competitive in the job market, they must be digitally literate. In workforce development, that means starting by addressing the issue of digital equity. Once people have equal access to affordable internet and devices, they can learn the necessary skills to succeed in the 21st-century workplace.