Baltimore Offers Tech Support and Internships for Adult Learners

Posted January 8, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Individual using a laptop

Adult learn­ers in Bal­ti­more, includ­ing many of col­or, par­tic­i­pate in train­ing and edu­ca­tion pro­grams out­side of four-year col­leges that are meant to help them gain skills and cre­den­tials need­ed to suc­ceed in the work­force. But as the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic start­ed mov­ing these pro­grams online, one thing quick­ly became appar­ent: Many of the city’s adult learn­ers, includ­ing younger adults, need­ed sup­port oper­at­ing their com­put­ers, con­nect­ing to the inter­net or using soft­ware for remote coursework.

That’s where the Bal­ti­more Dig­i­tal Equi­ty Coalition’s (BDEC) Tech Sup­port Hot­line has stepped in.

Since August, adult learn­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in Baltimore’s work­force train­ing and edu­ca­tion pro­grams — which includes GED cours­es, indus­try cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­grams and oth­er offer­ings — have been able to call BDEC’s free hot­line from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and con­nect with a staff mem­ber who can assist them with var­i­ous tech­no­log­i­cal issues. Instruc­tors and staff for the adult pro­grams can also use the service.

So far, the hot­line has received about 300 calls a month. Areas of sup­port have includ­ed assis­tance con­nect­ing to WiFi, using video con­fer­enc­ing appli­ca­tions and even obtain­ing a com­put­er to begin with.

A lot of Baltimore’s adult learn­ers are par­tic­i­pat­ing in online cours­es and train­ing for the first time and many come with lim­it­ed or no dig­i­tal skills,” says Chrissie Pow­ell, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Byte Back Bal­ti­more and co-founder of BDEC — a net­work of over 60 orga­ni­za­tions aim­ing to increase dig­i­tal access to Bal­ti­more com­mu­ni­ties that have been his­tor­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized. That’s why a cen­tral hot­line for broad areas of tech­ni­cal sup­port is vital, and we’re hap­py to offer that service.”

Con­nect­ing Adult Learn­ers With Internships

The hot­line, which is sup­port­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion and oth­er fun­ders, employs a coor­di­na­tor and two interns who are enrolled in infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­grams in Bal­ti­more. The paid interns will serve for rough­ly two months.

Nel­son Finney, who began his intern­ship in Novem­ber, said he was grate­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ty. Finney, 24, said he strug­gled to find work oppor­tu­ni­ties after grad­u­at­ing from Tow­son Uni­ver­si­ty in 2020 — as the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic caused hir­ing to slow down. It’s tough out there,” he says.

Finney learned about the intern­ship through Pass it On, a local non­prof­it that’s help­ing him earn tech­ni­cal cer­ti­fi­ca­tions. I’m so glad to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to gain key expe­ri­ence that’ll help me advance in my career,” Finney says. The work is ful­fill­ing, too, because I get to help oth­ers who are look­ing to improve their skills as well.”

Address­ing the Dig­i­tal Divide 

Pow­ell says she wants the hot­line to expand, and hopes that, even­tu­al­ly, it will serve all low-income peo­ple in the city. In Bal­ti­more, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of peo­ple of col­or and those in low-income com­mu­ni­ties lack access to devices, the inter­net and the sup­port they need to use tech­nol­o­gy effec­tive­ly — a sit­u­a­tion often referred to as the dig­i­tal divide. We know the need for tech sup­port goes beyond just adults who are involved in edu­ca­tion and train­ing pro­grams,” Pow­ell says. We hope that fun­ders, city lead­ers and oth­er stake­hold­ers rec­og­nize why these ser­vices are so impor­tant, espe­cial­ly at a time when dig­i­tal access is critical.”

The Casey Foun­da­tion has made sev­er­al invest­ments to help decrease Baltimore’s dig­i­tal divide — includ­ing com­mit­ting fund­ing for a BDEC direc­tor who will lead the net­work in car­ry­ing out its mis­sion. The Foun­da­tion has also sup­port­ed the city school system’s efforts to expand stu­dent access to com­put­ers and the inter­net dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, as well as an ini­tia­tive to estab­lish sev­er­al WiFi hotspots in pri­mar­i­ly Black com­mu­ni­ties in the city.

Too many fam­i­lies — pri­mar­i­ly those in Black com­mu­ni­ties — lack access to the tech­nol­o­gy and sup­port they need to gain a qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion and suc­ceed in the work­force,” says Sara Muempfer, a senior asso­ciate with the Casey Foun­da­tion. These prob­lems pre­date the COVID-19 out­break and must be addressed for the city to build equi­table oppor­tu­ni­ties for its residents.”

Learn about how Baltimore’s sum­mer youth work pro­gram moved online dur­ing the pandemic

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