Finding solutions: What is the user need?

Every community is unique which means that every community will have unique needs when it comes to digital access, training, and usage. Finding out what those needs are is an important first step in building practical digital solutions. In terms of economy alone, upstate New York includes farming and agriculture communities, tourism-driven communities, communities revolving around higher education, etc. Each of these communities will have different goals when it comes to bridging the digital divide and they will require different solutions. The various education levels, social systems, and cultural norms in the individual communities will also dictate what types of solutions will have the most impact. Getting the best information about the communities from the actual stakeholders is key in creating the most affective digital literacy and digital access programs.

Here are a few ideas on how to ask questions and find answers about the specific and individual needs of unique communities in rural, Upstate New York:

Teacher Surveys – Teachers have a unique window into the challenges, interests, and goals of their communities. They are at the forefront of providing opportunities for the younger generation but they are also on the front lines when it comes to understanding what’s important to the community (parents, local government leaders, etc.) Teachers are also in a prime position to encourage and support digital literacy skills in the classroom. For all of these reasons, getting their input is important when building access and digital literacy programs in a community. Designing surveys which produce useful results can be tricky. Wood and Howley (2011) recommend creating an initial draft of the survey, pilot testing the survey with focus groups of a select group of teachers, interviewing an expert in the field about the survey, and then using the feedback from the pilot tests and interview(s) to create a finalized version of the survey. Administering the survey can be done by ground mail; sending an introductory letter prior to sending the survey is a good way to encourage more participation. (Wood & Howley, 2011)

Self-assessment User Surveys – In order to measure the types and levels of digital skills already present within the community, self-assessment surveys can be particularly useful. Zhong cautions that self-assessment surveys may not give the most accurate picture of actual digital skills but what self-assessment can point to is the level of confidence, openness, and interest in digital skills. All of these factors are related to the potential for learning digital skills and therefore play an important role in what types of access and training programs would best suit the potential users. (Zhong, 2011) When creating self-assessment tools, Zhong (2011) recommends asking specific questions about specific tasks and having the survey takers rate their skills with regards to each specific computer task. This will provide meaningful information about the users’ interest in computer skills and confidence in their abilities to use computers effectively.

Diaries and Interviews – Using first-hand accounts of current digital usage is a good way to figure out where the focus should be in terms of designing training and access programs. Equipping potential stakeholders with diaries for a given period of time and instructing them to record all of their ICT usage in the diary (including information on where they used the ICT, how they accessed it, what they did, how long they used the ICT, etc.) will provide the program designers with incredibly valuable information about the current patterns of ICT use in the community. The diaries are also in-the-moment information rather than information from memory and so they are potentially more reliable and accurate. (Stevenson, 2008) This diary information can then be combined with one-to-one interviews with the potential stakeholders. In Stevenson’s study, she looked at a set of families in a community. The families held a range of ages and backgrounds. She reviewed the diaries they kept and designed interview questions based on their digital usage diary entries. Stevenson then conducted individual interviews with family members as well as group interviews with the families which allowed her to compare the answers given when asked questions individually with the answers given when asked with other family members present. This comparison provided useful information about the social dynamics involved in digital equipment usage in the community. (Stevenson, 2008)

Making the Library Connection – Conducting interviews or focus groups with local public librarians and library staff is another way to access information on how the community members might use digital resources, what their current habits are, and what types of training might be most beneficial.  Libraries are one of the first places people turn to when they need access to digital resources and many libraries already host trainings on digital literacy.  Partnering with local libraries to offer support and expand on these trainings and resources is a great way to work within the structure of the community to bridge the divide.


Stevenson, O. (2008). Ubiquitous presence, partial use: the everyday interaction of children and their families with ICT. Technology, Pedagogy, and Education. 17(2), p. 115-130

Wood, L. & Howley, A. (2011). Dividing at an Early Age: The hidden digital divide in Ohio elementary schools. Learning, Media, and Technology. 37(1), p. 20-39.

Zhong, Z. (2011). From Access to Usage: The divide of self-reported digital skills among adolescents. Computers and Education. 56 (2011), p. 736-746.