Every day in Wiscasset, when motorists pass Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission on Route 1, they are also passing the non-profit National Digital Equity Center. Headquartered at LCRPC, the NDEC is working to help Mainers and other Americans access the internet and learn how to use it.
Susan Corbett, former chief executive officer of Washington County-based broadband provider Axiom, founded NDEC in 2018. It has raised about $5 million in federal, state and private funding to provide Mainers with free digital literacy classes. And in the past year, it has added an affordable equipment program funded through Maine’s Office of Community Development, a division of Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Those who meet county income guidelines which the state Office set can get a refurbished laptop or desktop computer, or if they don’t have internet they can get a tablet with cell connectivity, Corbett said.
She said 57% of NDEC’s students are 55 or older; 30% if its students are unemployed. People say all the time, they can’t be taught how to use the internet, she said. “What we do know is, if somebody wants to learn, they can.”
Learning among other students, online or in-person, helps, Chief Operating Officer Marita Fairfield said. She said a person often thinks they are the only one who doesn’t know something. They see in class, that is not so, she said. “They realize very quickly that they’re not alone.” The classes are free to Maine residents, regardless of income; out-of-staters can take all the classes they want with an annual subscription.
If someone qualifies for the refurbished laptop or desktop and takes five hours of classes, including internet safety, that device is theirs; NDEC issues a certificate of ownership, Corbett explained. As for the tablets, students can keep them a year if they take five hours of classes, including internet safety.
“(NDEC’s) mission is to close the digital divide in Maine and across the United States,” Corbett said. NDEC is piloting its Maine work as a model for the rest of the country, Corbett told Wiscasset Newspaper. NDEC contacts other regions of the U.S. and makes presentations nationally. “You can have the best (internet) connection in the world but you’ve still got to know how to use it, and people still need to be able to afford it and ... have a device to access it.” She said the pandemic showed how deep Maine’s digital divide was. “People couldn’t connect, they didn’t have a broadband connection or enough of (one, or) people couldn’t afford it or they didn’t have equipment, all of (that) reared its ugly head.”
For about two years, LCRPC has been donating office space for NDEC’s administration, Corbett said. No classes happen there. NDEC has instructors around the state. Pre-pandemic, classes happened at libraries, community centers and other sites. In the pandemic, classes moved online to an interactive platform. This expanded NDEC’s reach, Corbett said. For example, an instructor in Aroostook County who was a whiz at Advanced Excel could teach people all over the state, she said.
When people started gathering in public again, NDEC started a “partner on-site class program,” Corbett said. A local facilitator is with the students at a library or other site; the instructor joins them via Zoom.
What’s next? More growth, Corbett said. NDEC partners with dozens of health care, older adult and other community agencies to help people get digitally literate and accessing the internet. Software and equipment are always changing, so there will always be a need, she said.
Fairfield said NDEC’s more than 40 classes include one on applying to an affordable connectivity program; and curricula on aging well with technology; home and education; and work and business.
LCRPC Executive Director Mary Ellen Barnes said she is “thrilled” the commission is housing the Center. The Center’s mission fits with LCRPC’s longtime efforts to expand towns’ broadband, Barnes said. “(NDEC) is really getting at the issues that consumers have, all generations, with ‘What is this internet thing all about?’”