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For Some Vermonters, A Lack Of Knowledge Is The Barrier To Getting Online

Steve Zind
Patty Haupt is learning computer skills in order to improve her job prospects.

Much has been made of Vermont’s efforts to extend broadband service to every resident.

But the service isn’t much good unless it’s used, and despite nearly universal broadband coverage, a significant number of Vermonters lack the digital skills to take advantage of it.

A 2014 survey conducted by Castleton Polling Institute for the Public Service Department found that 26 percent of Vermont households don’t subscribe to a broadband service. When asked why, people most frequently said they felt they don't need broadband or do not own a computer.

Cost is one factor, but local libraries make computers and Internet access available free of charge. More daunting is a lack of knowledge that puts the online world out of reach.     

“I’m missing out on something," says Randolph resident Nancy Wright. "People are speaking a foreign language in my own country, and I don’t understand it.”

Wright feels left out each time she’s told she should could go online to learn more about a subject. At 91-and-a-half, she is an eager consumer of information, but not the digital kind. 

It’s not just learning how to use a computer; it’s the risk she perceives in going online. She’s heard about hacking, identity theft and other dire consequences. 

People talking about their computers having viruses,” says Wright. “The first time I heard that I thought, ‘Oh my land!’”

Wright says her biggest fear is that she can’t learn new skills, but she seems willing to try.  

“I miss out when my daughters email each other all the time. I thought, ‘Gee, I wish I could do that,’” she says.

Wright is not alone. People over 50 and those in rural areas are less likely to have computer skills. So are those who earn below-average incomes. That’s a significant number in a state like Vermont. 

According to a new report on effective use of the Internet, while adult education centers, Community College of Vermont and the state’s libraries are all helping to teach people digital literacy skills, more needs to be done.

The report is part of the State Broadband Initiative funded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Sharon Combes-Farr directs the Digital Economy Project at the Vermont Council on Rural Development,  which will hold a conference this month that includes sessions on digital literacy.

She says teaching people how to use the Internet goes hand-in-hand with the effort to make sure all Vermonters have access to it.

“Delivering fiber or wireless broadband is a great first step, but there’s a lot that needs to occur for it to impact lives,” says Combes-Farr.

One teaching program ended last month when grant money ran out. It was a partnership between the Council on Rural Development, the Department of Libraries and state colleges.

The program placed college interns in 24 libraries to teach digital skills. They conducted more than 800 one-on-one sessions.

Combes-Farr says the program helped seniors like Nancy Wright, as well as people still in the labor force and looking for jobs.

“We’ve had interns meeting with the person, putting a resume together, then the next [meeting] was applying for jobs,” she says.

Combes-Farr says increasingly, applying for a job or submitting claims for jobless benefits requires going online. The jobs themselves often require digital skills. 

To get a sense of the resources necessary to help people learn digital skills, consider what would be involved in teaching computer skills to thousands of people who have never used a mouse.

“We all agree that there’s a problem; that we need more instruction and assistance for Vermonters,” says Vermont State Librarian Martha Reid, who heads a Digital and Internet Skills Roundtable organized last year.

Reid says the group plans to conduct an assessment of who needs digital skills and what those skills are before developing additional training programs.

There is another group of people that Reid’s group hopes to reach: Those who don’t really see the value in learning computer and online skills.

“If you’ve never used a computer, you’ve never used the Internet — life is going on fine for you — you might not know how it can enhance your life,” she says.

Not so long ago, Patty Haupt was in that category. The Braintree resident works in food service at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph. 

It wasn’t her first choice when she applied for a job at the hospital.

“Patient registration was what I was going to go for and I had the interview, but I didn’t have enough computer skills behind me,” says Haupt.

Earlier this year Haupt bought a computer and signed up for Internet service at home. 

Her work schedule makes it difficult for her to take  classes at an adult education center. Her daughters-in-law are helping her learn – slowly.  

“I need to learn a lot more to really be comfortable to step out again and maybe get an office job — something easier than being on my feet all day long” Haupt says.

Haupt is crossing the digital divide, but many Vermonters remain on the other side. For some it can mean fewer job opportunities, less access to information and increased social isolation.  

This story was originally published with the headline "Bridging The Digital Divide."

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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