Closing the Digital Divide
She introduced herself as Miss Sonja (pronounced Sawn-ja, with a hard “j” instead of a “y” sound).
As she stood with her arms locked tightly across her chest, Sonja Farmer spoke of how she has no idea how to use the internet.
She, her daughter — a student at Durham Technical Community College — and her elementary school-age twin boys all share a laptop and a tablet.
“I only have one laptop here, and I’ve got twins. I don’t know anything about the laptop. Everyone’s on it,” she said, the television blaring in the background, drowning out her voice.
Three miles away from Miss Sonja’s apartment on North Pritchard Avenue, the Chapel Hill Public Library has been hosting computer courses for adults like her to learn the fundamentals of navigating the internet.
Though she has heard about these Kramden Institute classes, Miss Sonja hasn’t been able to attend any of the sessions because she doesn’t own a car and can’t make the walk to the public library.
“They need to do stuff closer, in this area. They’ve got one, two, three, four, maybe five — in this area — housing that don’t have access to all the way over there on Estes,” she said, referencing how the library on Estes Drive is too far away from public-housing units.
“They need to bring them closer. And I think they could get a lot of residents involved,” Miss Sonja said.
These residents need education on how to use computers as their children grow up in school systems that are becoming increasingly paperless.
Whenever Miss Sonja’s computer has a virus or any other problem, she has to call her daughter for technical support. She also wants to take the Kramden courses so she can use her computer for work.
“I would love to learn how to go to (the internet) and get my payroll because I’m going to get paper no more, so I have to go online, so I don’t know how to do that,” she said.
Though Miss Sonja pays to have internet in her home for her daughter and two sons, many other families in the area are unable to do the same. After conducting a survey of the public-housing residents, the town of Chapel Hill found that about one out of every four households with school-age children did not have an internet connection.
In May 2015, Chapel Hill chose to implement a program that would help public-housing residents set up free internet connections in their homes.
Miss Sonja lives in one of the 13 neighborhoods in Chapel Hill that will be provided with free internet service. The project is a collaboration between the town and the Kramden Institute, a nonprofit organization in Durham that provides communities with computer courses and donates refurbished computers to students in the course and to families.
The five neighborhoods that are outside of AT&T’s service area will be set up with Google Fiber when it makes its way into the Triangle. The town will set up public Wi-Fi hotspots in the Google neighborhoods while residents wait.
Ledonna Fearrington signed up for the four-week-long Kramden class so she could earn a free laptop for her children to use.
She was one of about 20 students who ambled through the doors at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday in October and sat at one of the laptops along the long rows of desks. Each computer was accompanied by an instruction sheet, a pen and, on one night, a new USB flash drive, still wrapped in the cellophane.
Lile Stephens, a Kramden class instructor, said when Kramden began to offer free computers to students through the Durham Tech scholars program — a program that puts a refurbished desktop in the home of any student grades three through 12 if they are nominated by a teacher — they learned that most students needed more than just the computer.
“They come in on award day, and we sit them down for 20 minutes and show them a couple of things,” Stephens said. “We know that, while we’re awarding these to kids, in many cases they’re the family’s computer, and we do offer technical support, but we were getting a lot of phone calls about some really simple and basic stuff that you just can’t cover in 20 minutes.”
The students, mainly working-age adults, as well as a sprinkling of high school students and a few residents who couldn’t respond to questions in English, followed along intently as Stephens walked the class through new programs and functions in a slideshow presentation.
Stephens and the teaching assistants — volunteers from the library staff and UNC students — scrambled through the long rows while students tapped away at their keyboards.
Although a few of the students, like Fearrington, clearly knew what they were doing, many of them had never used computers before.
“We consider (ourselves) to be in a digital age, and we consider ourselves to be really sophisticated with technology, but there’s still a large percentage of people that just do not have the access or the training,” Stephens said.
So far, about 60 people have graduated from the Kramden program. Sarah Viñas, a community planner for the town who was involved in winning the Research Triangle’s Google Fiber bid, said everyone from the town has been impressed with how well the program has been running.
Viñas said that the only thing people have to do to activate their free service is to call the provider and request a worker to come to their home to set everything up.
“We’ve been really pleased,” she said. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people, and people are really excited to have a computer, and that combined with the instruction on how to use it and the free internet access, I think is a really nice complete package. So we hope that we can continue to reach more residents.”
Because AT&T and Google are providing their services for free, the only costs associated with the program so far are from the Kramden Institute. The town paid about $17,000 for the first two classes to the nonprofit. The costs cover all materials used, instruction and a refurbished laptop for each participant.
“It’s humbling to me, every time I teach a class. I realize, ‘Oh yeah, here’s someone else who’s never ever used a computer,’ and is basically shut out from all of the great services you and I take for granted and do every day,” Stephens said.
His remark clearly resonates across the Triangle region: As UNC-Chapel Hill students cart around their personal Macbooks and businesspeople in the Research Triangle Park tote their Lenovos to work, Miss Sonja’s family of four shares one computer.
And she’s still trying to figure out how to use it.
Fortunately, her daughter is only a phone call away.