NC State Extension to Expand Digital Skills Education
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NC State Extension will be able to greatly expand its digital skills training programs after being awarded a $1.33 million grant from the North Carolina Department of Information Technology.
“There is growing interest in getting this work done,” said Kenny Sherin, NC State Extension’s statewide broadband access and education coordinator. “People see the need and realize it’s important for Extension to be involved.”
With offices in all 100 counties of the state plus the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, Extension is well positioned to help people navigate the challenges of access and education.
“It’s right in our wheelhouse to be doing this,” Sherin said. “Extension has always been there to help society adjust to new changes. It’s part of our DNA. Just as Extension helped farms modernize at the turn of the century, here we are again facing a new technological shift.”
The grant comes from the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy, a part of the Division of Broadband and Digital Equity within NCDIT. The award was earmarked to hire digital skills agents in participating counties and train existing agents to host digital skills educational opportunities in their communities.
“All North Carolinians need the skills to safely access the internet and its many resources,” Governor Roy Cooper said in a news release announcing the grant. “Digital navigators will provide local assistance to help more people learn to use the internet for health, education and jobs.”
NC State Extension is adding full-time digital skills educators in Bertie, Caswell, Cherokee and Guilford counties, and agents who will be split between Person/Granville and Edgecombe/Nash counties. Agents in Ashe, Columbus, Davie, McDowell, Sampson and Wilson counties will add digital skills training to their duties. Randolph County was the first in the state to hire a digital skills agent.
“Our mission is to empower every North Carolinian with digital skills for success in work, health and life,” Sherin said. “We will do what Extension has always done throughout its history — take knowledge from the university to the field, demonstrate that technology, and help people adopt that technology. We’re keeping with the tradition of extending knowledge from the university to the community.”
Extension’s digital skills education programs complement NCDIT efforts to provide broadband access to more areas of the state, primarily in rural regions. Sherin, County Extension Director in Randolph County, became broadband access and education coordinator in March 2021, a position added primarily to help bridge the digital divide and help people gain digital skills needed to earn, learn, be well and live well.
A study conducted by the National Skills Coalition showed that 91% of jobs in North Carolina require some type of digital skill. Jobs that require at least one digital skill pay on average 23% more, according to the study.
“Helping North Carolinians gain digital skills is workforce development,” Sherin said.
Education programs for farmers and others include lessons in productivity tools, such as accounting software, spreadsheets, online banking, photo editing, email marketing, website building and advanced skills like coding and cybersecurity. It also includes cutting-edge technology such as monitoring moisture meters in grain storage facilities and using data from drones to track the health of crops.
The NCDIT grant will give Extension the bandwidth to add training for people who need the tools to be able to apply for jobs online and access state and county benefits.
“The Randolph County Department of Social Services has already talked to me about how we could offer digital skills training like setting up an email address and signing up for the Medicaid expansion, or signing up for SNAP benefits,” Sherin said. “We can teach them how to set up an email address so they can access job applications, or how to pay property taxes online. We can integrate with county services to help people gain better knowledge and be able to take advantage of services that are already there.”
Twelve mobile classrooms will enable digital skills agents to deliver skills training where it is most needed.
“The agents will set up a classroom at a community center, a senior center, wherever there are people that need digital skills,” Sherin said. “We are establishing a framework for what we will deliver. We can teach practical everyday skills like home banking, or helping seniors set up online orders for their pharmacy to manage prescriptions.”
“This work is so important,” Sherin said. “The interest has really grown and bloomed over the years, especially since Covid. The pandemic really highlighted the need for connectivity even more. The need was always there. It just accelerated it to the speed of light.”