Creating an Opportunity for Digital Inclusion

On February 4, APAH, Arlington County and Arlington Public Schools celebrated the success of the award-winning digital inclusion initiative at Arlington Mill Residences.

The ‘digital divide’ is a phrase often used to describe the gap between those who have ready, affordable access to computers, the internet, and the associated skills and those who don’t. Access is often tied to income, race, gender, and educational attainment. In the fast-paced environment of today’s society, the internet has become as important as any other utility like clean water or electricity; a vital resource that allows people to pay bills, do homework, or find a job with efficiency. High-speed internet access is no longer considered a luxury item but can still be priced like one, adding another layer of living costs that some must decide to forgo based on their income.

“Arlington is committed to addressing this lack of equity and ensuring that our students and families can gain the access they need to succeed regardless of income,” remarked County Board Chair Christian Dorsey.

Arlington Mill Residences was selected for the digital inclusion pilot program, where more than 150 school-aged children live but half of the households did not have reliable access to the internet. APAH, in partnership with the Arlington County Department of Technology Services, Connect Arlington, Wi-Fiber, and Recycle for VA, now offers all 122 families living in the building with free high-speed internet and an opportunity for a free laptop (one per household).

In order to qualify for the free laptop (refurbished by nonprofit Recycle for VA), Arlington Mill residents must pass a test to demonstrate computer usage capability or take a free three-session course on computer basics and the internet. The course includes useful online tools and education as well as a basic grounding on internet security practices. Residents were in attendance to celebrate the completion of the computer course, and teens participated in a poster contest sharing what the new internet access meant to them and their family.

To date, 37 residents who have passed the computer competency test and 29 graduates of the Computer Core classes have received access points and laptops. A further 8 are currently attending a second round of classes, with further outreach planned throughout 2019 to distribute more laptops.

The program was geared towards improving the opportunity for students in Arlington county to succeed in school. One resident explained, “It’s a great opportunity to get free WiFi and laptop to do school work instead of using data on my phone. I’m very excited.” -Abenezer.

For many, this class was just the start of improving their overall IT knowledge. “The class was perfect. I’m going to take another more advanced computer class now. I found it very useful and I have to keep up with the technology,” explained Mehret.

There have been challenges as well as opportunities. Because there are several partners in this venture, figuring out a structure to execute the project was initially difficult. There were technical challenges and several weeks of trouble shooting to get the system operating efficiently. There have also been opportunities. Residents truly appreciate the new service. Resident surveys are conducted to assess usability of the internet and laptops and for APAH to receive recommendations.

The residents were very grateful for the opportunity. As Lesvia explained, “I’m very happy I got this computer and this training. I’m very grateful for the class and time you took to invest in us.”

The hope is to expand the program to additional APAH properties and other non-profit developers in Arlington. To this end APAH is working to create a guide on how to implement this project more broadly in our area.