Bridging the Digital Divide

Eighty-seven percent of American adults now use the Internet, according to a January 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. Unfortunately, those who still lack information technology (IT) skills and the opportunities to develop them are often forgotten. Without basic IT skills, the chances of securing a well-paying job or even utilizing the educational system to advance one’s prospects are severely limited.

A Binghamton University student tutors offers computer literacy training to a community member at the ATTAIN labs.“Everything is becoming more digital,” says Natalie Lista, a freshman majoring in integrative neuroscience at Binghamton University. “There are few areas of life I can think of that won’t eventually be digitized. For people who have a hard time with that and are unfamiliar with computers, it’s hard — they end up being left behind.”

Lista is a volunteer computer literacy teacher at the Broome County Public Library, one of the organizations in the Binghamton area offering computer classes through the Bridging the Digital Divide Program (BDDP), a joint effort by Binghamton University and SUNY Broome to bring IT access and education to marginalized populations in Broome County.

“We realized that there were sizable populations in our community who struggle with the most basic technology-related skills,” says Allison Alden, director of the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) at Binghamton University. “Then we looked around us and saw thousands of students who were excited about technology and passionate about helping people, and we realized that we had the capacity to build a truly powerful and effective program.” 

Bridging the Digital DivideAnd so in 2010, Alden partnered with Sandy Wright, assistant professor and chairperson of the Business Information Technology Department at SUNY Broome, and Christie Zwahlen, MA ’09, then a New York Campus Compact VISTA volunteer and now assistant director of the CCE, to identify several populations in the Greater Binghamton area that struggle with access to IT, including senior citizens, the formerly homeless or incarcerated, immigrants and refugees, economically challenged youth, and unemployed or underemployed adults, among others.

“People’s reasons for taking these classes are numerous,” says Wright. “Some have trouble getting a job because they aren’t computer literate. Others grew up in an era before the Internet and are trying to catch up with their children and grandchildren. Youth from underprivileged socioeconomic backgrounds struggle to keep up in school. BDDP classes offer them all a safe, judgment-free place to come, learn and ask questions.”

Volunteer Jack Rappaport oversees the refurbishment of computers that are donated to labs and individuals around Broome county.Community members who complete the classes are then eligible to receive a refurbished computer on loan through the program. The loaned computers are provided to BDDP at no cost by Geodis Global Solutions, and refurbishing is completed on campus by student volunteers. Students work under the tutelage of Jack Rappaport, a community member and retired engineer who has donated countless volunteer hours working with the program.

BDDP and programs like it strive to build a stronger relationship between the community and University. Students feel more integrated and invested in the local community and local residents come to see Binghamton University as a resource and partner in the region. Students — literacy teachers and refurbishers alike — learn a lot about themselves and the issues facing their community.

“It was rewarding to see how happy the men were to discover how simple it could be,” says Andrew Vespoli, a Binghamton University junior who taught classes at the Binghamton Rescue Mission, a supportive residence for formerly homeless men. “Most of my time is spent on campus, not outside of it,” says Vespoli. “It was cool to work with people outside of the University. They’re obviously very nice people. I just hadn’t really interacted with them before.”

BRIDGE TO HAITI

SUNY Broome students have provided resources to start computer literacy classes for over 275 individuals in Haiti through their Health for Haiti service-learning class.In January 2014, SUNY Broome’s Jen Musa, professor of biology, and Maureen Hankin, professor and chair of dental hygiene, took 15 students in their Health for Haiti service-learning course to Port Au Prince, Haiti, where they distributed food, provided health education and staffed free health clinics supervised by local Haitian doctors. When Musa and Hankin asked a local doctor what they could do to help next year, they were shocked to learn that the number one priority was computers.

“So that’s where we partnered with Bridging the Digital Divide,” says Musa. “We hired a Haitian student, Shaina Louis, here at SUNY Broome to translate all of the Level 1 BDDP computer literacy course materials into Haitian Creole.”

In January 2015, Musa and Hankin returned to Haiti with another group of students and distributed over 40 new and refurbished laptop computers to various schools, installed a 2,000-watt solar power system that now powers one of the most remote schools and set up a state-of-the-art microfiltration system that is providing the community with thousands of gallons of clean water each day. More than 275 students in three communities now attend computer classes.

“The impact that this project is having on the Haitian students and on us here in the United States makes it one of the greatest things I’ve ever been involved in,” says Musa.


Bridging the Digital Divide is always looking for students interested in teaching computer literacy classes or refurbishing computers. For more information, visit the Bridging the Digital Divide website or contact bddp@binghamton.edu.

Last Updated: 4/27/16