Kramden Institute seeks to bridge the digital divide

Instructor Melanie McMillan, of Kramden Institute, welcomes new participants and guides them through a digital literacy course earlier this month. (Photo by Danelis Olivera-Herrera.)

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

By Danelis Olivera-Herrera

Owning a computer can be smooth sailing with no technical glitches for many years, or it can be fraught with issue after issue with the slightest twist of a cable disabling the screen for good.

And if the latter happens, you can send your computer to the Kramden Institute, a non-profit organization in Durham that aims to give computers a second life and teach people in the area the skills they need to be more proficient with technology.

Kramden has been serving Carolinians for 20 years, connecting them to the Internet, providing refurbished devices and promoting computer literacy. Over time, its services have expanded to address the needs of not only K-12 students but also adults who lack access to technology, with outreach programs extending to communities beyond the Triangle area.

Executive Director Cindy Yu-Robinson recognized the need for the 10-employee organization to scale up because of the overwhelming interest in digital inclusion from federal, state and local governments.

Nearly 20% of North Carolina households lack access to a digital device that can access the Internet and perform significant tasks such as completing homework and job applications, according to the Division of Broadband and Digital Equity.

“Internet services right now is like providing electricity to all homes across the United States,” Yu-Robinson said of how important connectivity is to everyone’s daily life. “In the 1950s, there were homes that had spotty blackouts, rollouts, you know, just not getting electricity all the time. So that is really a national challenge.”

Kramden Institute has distributed 53,036 computers since 2003 and had 11,487 participants in its education programs since 2014.

“Right now, our big focus is adults who have not had much experience with technology and lack a home-based computer,” Yu-Robinson said. “92% of jobs today involve some kind of technology, whether it’s a cash register or looking someone up online and having them pay a bill or make an order. So, we know that technology education is really, really important.”

Kramden offers all types of training such as in-person beginner computer classes for adults taught in English and Spanish, online computer training, a computer club for adults, a coders club for 6th and 8th graders and tech topics workshops that welcome all ages.

The adult program focuses on low-income adults who are no more than 200% above the federal poverty level.

The annual federal poverty level for a single-person household is $30,120, and for a household of four it’s $62,400, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

“We don’t ask for documentation,” Yu-Robinson said. “We basically say, ‘Hey, if you’re qualifying for another federal program like WIC or food stamps or anything like that, you will qualify for a computer.'”

Desktops refurbished by Kramden cost $30, and laptops are $70. Some adults can receive a refurbished computer for free.

“When we give four classes on computer basics, they earn the computer to take home. So, for those classes, they don’t pay for the class,” Yu-Robinson said. “That’s their investment. Their time is their investment.”

Deborah Thompson is semi-retired and trying to get into real estate. She recently completed an in-person, four-week course and received her free computer.

“I needed to know something about computers because I didn’t know anything about how to cut, copy, or anything like that,” Thompson said. “Some of the things I forget, but I can go back and review. And then, if I come in, and if I don’t know, I always ask my instructor. She’s really, really good.”

It’s that hands-on instruction Thompson valued most, that knowledge she had a good resource to turn to when needed.

Thompson plans to use her newfound technology skills to help her business grow.

“Well, tonight on my computer, I’m trying to get my instructor to teach me how to use the Earth cam,” Thompson said. “So, when I find a house or something in real estate, I can always look at the houses next door and houses across the street and also the street view.”

Melanie McMillan is a technology educator at Kramden’s Durham location.

“My role as a technology educator is to empower people to make them feel confident by teaching them basic computer skills,” McMillan said.

She remembered a student who was able to find a job because of the skills learned in Kramden programs. McMillan recalled the student wanted to work part time in security for recreational events, but there were several steps this student had to complete to get the job.

“Each week she would come in and show me the list of items she had to do, and we would work through the steps,” McMillan said. “She needed to take a photo for her picture, so I would walk her through taking it, and I would give her a chance to practice it on her own.”

As they practiced, McMillan noticed the student’s confidence grow. She would role-play as her the student’s potential employer to prepare her for the security job, guiding her through meetings she would eventually have to participate in.

“I taught her how to fill out every step of the process on the application,” McMillan said. “She completed the application, got hired for the job, and came back smiling the next week, telling me how proud of herself she was and how grateful she was that Kramden was there to walk her through all the steps, because now she was able to get that part-time job.”

This is the reality for another student at the Durham location. She is a stay-at-home mother who is seeking a job as an administrative generalist. She asked to remain anonymous.

She has struggled to keep up with the fast-paced changes in technology, especially programs like Excel and PowerPoint that are now ubiquitous in many workplaces.

“Because of these new inventions, I never had a class to teach the right thing to do. I’ve been doing things in a more challenging way,” she said. “The ability to ask questions is so imperative.”

Like Thompson, she is almost at her four weeks when in-class instruction ends. And, also like Thompson, the instruction has improved her self-confidence.

“I consider volunteering once I get a job,” the student said.

Another student in McMillan’s class, who also requested she remain anonymous, has a background in media, specifically television broadcasting, and wants to refresh her knowledge and skills. She previously worked at IBM, is familiar with Windows and owns various Apple products but wants to ensure she is up to date with her Lenovo computer.

“They got me interested in keeping up to date. That’s why I come here to keep up,” she said.

She previously volunteered at Kramden and even bought one of its refurbished computers.

“You can’t just throw away this machine; it’s good for something. It’s dependable,” she said.

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