University of Maryland: $6M Award From State to Help Extension Bridge Digital Divide

A $400 million statewide package to expand broadband access in Maryland includes $6 million for the University of Maryland Extension (UME) to lead projects bolstering digital literacy among those previously bypassed by the modern internet.

UME will focus on the adoption of broadband, with $4 million available for training, competency and education initiatives, and $2 million more to help people sign up for access and acquire a device.

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced work, school and other aspects of our lives to move online, Maryland legislators learned that 23% of the state’s households lacked broadband internet service. It rapidly became clear they were struggling not only academically and with job productivity, but to stay in touch with family and friends amid lockdowns or to search for critical information like testing or vaccine sites. The resulting Connect Maryland initiative, announced last August by Gov. Larry Hogan, includes $300 million in federal funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, plus $100 million more in state funds.

Drawing from a report by the Abell Foundation on digital connectedness in Maryland, UME faculty found that the digital divide disproportionately affects residents in Baltimore City and rural counties, low-income and older residents, and people of color—specifically Black and Hispanic.

“Through this generous funding from the state, we will mobilize a tech-education division to provide the training, support, and curriculum development to help increase adoption, understanding, and comfort” using broadband internet, said Jim Hanson, professor and associate dean/director for UME.

UME project leader Jinhee Kim said the first phase will include stakeholder surveys and interviews to better understand community needs, with participation from the Office of Statewide Broadband and the Maryland Rural Council. In addition, UMD’s College of Information Studies will work with rural libraries, where computer stations are major points of web access for residents.

“Digital literacy is an important part of our digital inclusion efforts,” said Kenrick Gordon, director of Statewide Broadband in the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. “Without providing a firm understanding of how to access the internet and what it can be used for, we will fail in our efforts to ensure that all Marylanders have access to, understand and are able to utilize broadband.”

In subsequent phases, UME will use the $4 million section of the award to develop curricula that meet social, cultural and linguistic needs of users; provide training and support for instructors and trainers, volunteers, peers, family members and residents; create an online digital literacy repository; and develop digital literacy partnerships with government agencies, libraries, workforce agencies, nonprofits, businesses and others.

The $2 million will help improve residents’ digital navigation, including home connectivity, devices and digital skills; assist community members with resources with obtaining affordable broadband access and devices; and provide basic technical support.