Digital Inclusion and Digital Literacy: What Does It Mean for Immigrants?

Participants using technology to learn at the Welcoming Center’s Immigrant Leadership Institute

In today’s highly connected world, few would refute the claim that technology is everywhere. You can hardly walk down the street without bumping into someone who is checking their e-mail, answering a text, or documenting a moment on social media. From the looks of things, technology must be more accessible than it’s ever been, right? The truth is that while many of us enjoy the benefits of technology and internet access, there are plenty of people who still lack the resources and skills necessary to use these tools effectively. Although technology and internet use are ubiquitous, individuals and communities without internet access, the resources to acquire personal technology, or the skills to use such technology can’t access opportunities that could drastically improve their lives. 

As an educator working specifically with adult English Language Learners (ELLs), I am interested in the ways that the language instruction can address a variety of needs beyond language proficiency. The classroom is a place where we not only prepare learners with language skills, but with other skills that are essential to their success in work and life. The ability to use technology efficiently and effectively certainly ranks high on the list of skills critical to ELLs’ success, whether to access continuing education and training or to land a job that pays family sustaining wages. Education must be treated as an intersectional practice, rather than an effort toward a singular goal. Learners have a variety of identities and circumstances which impact their lives, and thus education must strive to address those various identities and subsequent needs. I also believe that education is about understanding the way inclusion or a lack thereof affects learners, and how we as educators help learners develop awareness and skills that will allow them to move through spaces and utilize resources that they may not easily access.  

” When it comes to workforce development and job training, digital literacy is definitely an important factor to consider.”

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) defines digital inclusion as “the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of ICTs [Information and Communication Technologies].” The NDIA explains that “Digital inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional and structural barriers to access and use technology.” When marginalized groups are unable to benefit from advances in technology, existing disparities between such groups and those with greater access to resources and opportunity are exacerbated.  

How do the effects of this lack of access ripple through individual lives and communities? One important consequence manifests as a lack of digital literacy skills. To use the definition provided by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), digital literacy means that “one can use technology to its fullest effect—efficiently, effectively, and ethically—to meet information needs in personal, civic, and professional lives.” Just as the definition of digital literacy is itself expansive, so are the myriad challenges that those who lack it must face. When it comes to workforce development and job training, digital literacy is definitely an important factor to consider. Indeed, the Mayor’s Workforce Strategy specifically recommends focusing on digital literacy, along with literacy and numeracy, to develop Philadelphia’s workforce.  

“English language skills and educational background are just part of the skillset we need to look at when helping participants to prepare for training or job opportunities. “

So, how do immigrants figure in to all of this? My and my colleagues’ experiences as trainers and educators at the Welcoming Center and other institutions suggest that education level doesn’t necessarily correlate with one’s digital literacy skills. That is, we can’t expect immigrants with high school or university degrees from their home countries to demonstrate better digital literacy skills than their fellow immigrants with lower levels of formal education. This means that immigrants from diverse backgrounds can face similar challenges if they don’t have strong digital literacy skills, regardless of education or language level. Consider people who immigrate to the U.S. and start out with a gateway job. When an immigrant with only basic English skills takes a low-skilled job, they still may not have the skills necessary to obtain better employment or pursue training opportunities even when their language proficiency has improved. Immigrants who already have stronger English skills and professional training but lack digital literacy may also struggle, as they won’t be able to handle the demands of technology use in a professional environment. Thus, English language skills and educational background are just part of the skillset we need to look at when helping participants to prepare for training or job opportunities.  

To address these challenges, I am working with my colleagues at the Welcoming Center to strategically incorporate technology into our training programs and invest in participants’ access to technology. Specifically, we are designing programming which helps English language learners to develop language skills and foundational digital literacy skills concurrently, using an Integrated Education and Training (IET) model. The objective is to move away from the misconception that participants must first learn English before entering training to develop applicable skills that will make them competitive in the job market. To develop this programming effectively, we are also collaborating with employers to learn about the digital literacy skills individuals will need to succeed in specific occupational areas.  

Participants using technology to learn at the Welcoming Center’s Immigrant Leadership Institute

We are also offering opportunities for Immigrant Leadership Institute program participants to access Upwardly Global, an online platform designed for immigrants and refugees who are building their careers in the U.S. Participants in our International Professionals Program also use this platform as part of their intensive training. In both cases, Welcoming Center staff provides support as participants move through the modules. Incorporating technology in these ways encourages participants who may not be used to such technologies to get comfortable using platforms for online learning and communication. Developing these skills will prove useful as participants pursue further education and training opportunities and join the workforce. These are just some early steps in an ongoing strategy to invest in the digital inclusion of our participants, preparing immigrants with the skills they need to succeed in their professional, personal, and civic lives.

If you are interested in learning more about digital inclusion and digital literacy, check out these groups doing great work at the local and national levels!  

Technology Learning Collaborative: http://www.tlcphilly.org/ 

National Digital Inclusion Alliance: https://www.digitalinclusion.org/

About The Author

The Welcoming Center