Some of Patten Free Library’s 10 available computers wait to be used. According to Programs and Outreach Manager Hannah Lackoff, library guests log over 400 sessions of free computer use each month. Contributed / Patten Free Library

Patten Free Library has announced a partnership with the National Center for Digital Equity that will bring free digital literacy classes to Bath throughout the year, according to a press release.

“We’ve been wanting to offer classes like this, but we don’t have the staff capacity to do it in the same way that the NDEC does,” said Hannah Lackoff, the library’s programs and outreach manager. “This is a really great partnership because their teachers are experts.”

The program, which will debut at 11 a.m. on May 25 and 26 with a two-part class on internet safety, will cover a range of topics from iPhone, Chromebook and email basics to applying for the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, according to Lackoff.

Depending on the popularity of these sessions, the library will have the option of hosting additional free classes on more advanced subjects.

Up to 10 participants will be able to attend each class in the library’s community room. Teachers will instruct remotely over Zoom, while library staffers will be on hand to offer in-person assistance, Lackoff said.

Interested attendees can register by calling or visiting Patten Free Library’s website.

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The National Center for Digital Equity is dedicated to closing the country’s “digital divide,” according to Robert Hohman, the Maine-based nonprofit’s volunteer and partner support manager. He added the widespread shift to remote work, education and telemedicine during the pandemic highlighted and accelerated the need to improve online access and literacy.

“Some people have strong access and have had strong access for a long time, and other communities have not,” Hohman said. “They’re being slowly left behind as this divide widens.”

Older adults who didn’t grow up with computers are among the program’s targets, Hohman said. But he added that working adults, who often need to know how to use programs like Microsoft Word and Excel, and younger people attending school could also benefit from improved digital skills.

The Maine Learning Technology Initiative, a program launched in 2002 that provided thousands of 7th and 8th grade students with laptops, marked an early step toward reducing the state’s digital divide. Yet 2020 later, tens of thousands of Maine homes still lack internet speeds that meets FCC standards, Andrew Butcher of the Maine Connectivity Authority told the times record in April.

Now, the state is renewing its push to address inequalities in access to technology. A January report from the Maine Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called digital equity “a civil right in the realm of compulsory education.”

“Maine’s rural communities, communities of color, immigrant communities, older adult populations, individuals with disabilities, and lower income individuals and families suffered (during the pandemic),” the report read. “Digital inequity has, in effect, led to inequitable experiences both nationally and in Maine, and the pandemic brought these disparities into sharp focus.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars in grants are flowing to communities working to install high-speed broadband infrastructure, Butcher said.

Meanwhile, the National Center for Digital Equity hopes that partnering with local organizations like Patten Free Library, which already draws hundreds of visitors seeking free and reliable internet access each month, will help reach a wide array of Mainers, Hohman said.

“Something that’s very important to us is getting into the communities directly,” he said. “We’re trying to make this as accessible as possible to as many people as possible throughout the state of Maine.”

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