Justice Shannon, MJLST Staffer
According to the American Library Association, “digital literacy” is “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” Digital literacy is a term that has existed since the year 1997. Paul Gilster coined Digital literacy as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers.” In this way, the definition of digital literacy has broadened from how a person absorbs digital information to how one develops, absorbs, and critiques digital information.
The Covid-19 Pandemic taught Americans of all ages the value of Digital literacy. Elderly populations were forced online without prior training due to the health risks presented by Covid-19, and digitally illiterate parents were unable to help their children with classes.
Separate from Covid-19, the rise of crypto-currency has created a need for digital literacy in spaces that are not federally regulated.
The Covid-19 pandemic did not create the need for digital literacy training for the elderly. However, the pandemic highlighted a national need to address digital literacy among America’s oldest population. Elderly family members quarantined during the pandemic were quickly separated from their families. Teaching family members how to use Zoom and Facebook messenger became a substitute for some but not all forms of connectivity. However, teaching an elderly family member how to use Facebook messenger to speak to loved ones does not enable them to communicate with peers or teach them other digital literacy skills.
To address digital literacy issues within the elderly population states have approved Senior Citizen Technology grants. Pennsylvania’s Department of Aging has granted funds to adult education centers for technology for senior citizens. Programs like this have been developing throughout the nation. For example, Prince George’s Community College in Maryland uses state funds to teach technology skills to its older population.
It is difficult to tell if these programs are working. States like Pennsylvania and Maryland had programs before the pandemic. Still, these programs alone did not reduce the distance between America’s aging population and the rest of the nation during the pandemic. However, when looking at the scale of the program in Prince George’s County, this likely was not the goal. Beyond that, there is a larger question: Is the purpose of digital literacy for the elderly to ensure that they can connect with the world during a pandemic, or is the goal simply ensuring that the elderly have the skills to communicate with the world? With this in mind, programs that predate the pandemic, such as the programs in Pennsylvania and Maryland, likely had the right approach even if they weren’t of a large enough scale to ensure digital literacy for the entirety of our elderly population.
The pandemic highlighted a similar problem for many American families. While state, federal, and local governments stepped up to provide laptops and access to the internet, many families still struggled to get their children into online classes; this is an issue in what is known as “last mile infrastructure.”During the pandemic, the nation quickly provided families with access to the internet without ensuring they were ready to navigate it. This left families feeling ill-prepared to support their children’s educational growth from home. Providing families with access to broadband without digital literacy training disproportionately impacted families of color by limiting their children’s growth capacity online compared to their peers. While this wasn’t an intended result, it is a result of hasty bureaucracy in response to a national emergency. Nationally, the 2022 Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act aims to address digital literacy issues among adults by increasing funding for teaching workplace technology skills to working adults. However, this will not ensure that American parents can manage their children’s technological needs.
Separate from issues created by Covid-19 is cryptocurrency. One of the largest selling points of cryptocurrency is that it is largely unregulated. Users see it as “digital gold, free from hyper-inflation.”While these claims can be valid, consumers frequently are not aware of the risks of cryptocurrency. Last year the Chair of the SEC called cryptocurrencies “the wild west of finance rife with fraud, scams, and abuse.”This year the Department of the Treasury announced they would release instructional materials to explain how cryptocurrencies work. While this will not directly regulate cryptocurrencies providing Americans with more tools to understand cryptocurrencies may help reduce cryptocurrency scams.
Addressing digital literacy has been a problem for years before the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, when new technologies become popular, there are new lessons to learn for all age groups. Covid-19 appropriately shined a light on the need to address digital literacy issues within our borders. However, if we only go so far as to get Americans networked and prepared for the next national emergency, we’ll find that there are disparities between those who excel online and those who are are ill-equipped to use the internet to connect with family, educate their kids, and participate in e-commerce.