A PCC student smiles from behind a computer kiosk in a hallway next to a sign that reads Digital Navigator.
Member Spotlight

Moving the Needle on Digital Equity

Anteneh Demissie, who earned his Computer Information Systems associate degree at Portland Community College (PCC) earlier this year, has stepped up to a full degree program at Oregon Institute of Technology. His is a path chosen by many Oregon students, especially those from economically disadvantaged and/or historically marginalized communities, who see community college education as an affordable pathway to long-term academic success, job skills training and continuing education (for lifelong learners). Technologically savvy because of his chosen domain of study, Anteneh saw early on the clear connection between digital literacy and a student’s ability to make farther strides in their education. He was one of PCC’s 16 Digital Navigators – an on-campus program that includes trusted guides who address the whole digital inclusion process — home connectivity, affordable devices, and digital skills training — with students and community members.

“The struggle from lack of digital literacy has been particularly noticeable among our ESL population who are trying so hard to integrate culturally, linguistically as well as technologically.”

– Carey Larson, Digital Literacy and Inclusion Manager, Portland Community College

Funded by a Title III Grant, PCC’s Digital Navigators program is one of many across our nation’s community-based organizations (including community colleges). It is based on a model put forth by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) in 2020 right on the heels of the pandemic, which created a new sense of urgency around digital inequities as online learning skyrocketed. The program offers a peer-to-peer gateway to the digital world, providing assistance with affordable internet access, device acquisition, technical skills, and application support.

“As a student in the IT domain, I was very familiar with the concept of digital divide, and I could personally see how digital literacy stops the speed bumps in learning and helps students make farther strides in their education. It’s what drew me to the Digital Navigators program,” Anteneh shares. His passion to use his computer literacy skills to help fellow students is shared by fellow Digital Navigator, Jamie Dang. “My experience in tutoring showed me there was a clear digital literacy gap”, she observes. “And on a more personal note, I saw how my own immigrant parents who are perfectly intelligent and capable just need some help and training to understand the unfamiliar cultural context of our institutional operations and how to use digital skills to navigate them.”

Students walk along a sidewalk past banners that read Portland Community College

For many students who attend one of PCC’s four comprehensive campuses, the institution and campus access to basic digital resources such as free computers and Internet connectivity are literally their only lifeline to the digital world. For Digital Navigator Jack Sanders, a student in the Computer Information Systems program, the eye-opening experience was seeing how many community members were relying on local libraries and PCC to “patch together” Internet access. “I’ve always had Internet connectivity my whole life and one of the coolest experiences was to make students and others from the community aware of programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which unfortunately has been phased out,” Jack noted. 

With funding for ACP having run out, Carey Larson, program leader for the design, development and delivery of college-wide digital literacy and inclusion programs PCC, believes that “more intentional partnerships” between the Digital Navigators program and local digital inclusion programs within the Portland metro area are even more critical to address urgent gaps, so students and other community members in search of easy device and connectivity access can be redirected to other resources. “The struggle has been particularly noticeable among our ESL population who are trying so hard to integrate culturally, linguistically as well as technologically.”

Beyond helping students on campus gain access to affordable connectivity and devices, lack of basic skills training such as accessing online files and content and submitting assignments online can be overwhelming to some students who have limited exposure to digital devices at home. “This work has been teaching me that the community is really bright and really motivated, but without basic digital literacy, they have a lot of trouble finding so many available resources which are all online,” noted Jamie. “I believe a lot of people are far more capable of digital skills than they realize.”  

More information about the PCC Digital Navigators Program.