This year, we were excited to be a part of Tech Jam, a technology-focused job fair that also serves to showcase how well Vermont is succeeding at creating and adopting to new technologies, from being the home of companies such as and MyWebGrocer to fostering smaller businesses such as Found Line. Many of these businesses are passionate about using technology to help people achieve their goals.

The latter category is where the Vermont Digital Economy Project comes in. As Vermont works to have full broadband internet coverage across the state, the Digital Economy Project works to make sure that the Internet and the digital tools that come with it are accessible and adopted by all those who could benefit from them. Through these tools, we hope to help grow local economies and improve resilience in the event of another disaster.

But before people can use technology, they need to know how to use it. This was what we discussed at our panel at Tech Jam.

The latest figures from the Pew Research Center show that 15% of American adults currently do not use the internet at all. In a world where comfort in an online sphere is becoming a necessity and another measure of literacy (along with reading and writing), it is important to connect with those who are not “digitally literate” and are at risk of being left behind by a widening “digital divide.”

On our panel sat Domenic Laurenzi, an Internet Intern in the Northeast Kingdom; Jennie Martin, the Lead Teacher/Community Coordinator at the Randolph Learning Center of Central Vermont Adult Basic Education, Mary Kay Dreher, the Coordinator of Academic Services at the Community College of Vermont, Montpelier, and Cheryl McMahon, the Librarian at Cobleigh Library in Lyndonville. Each of our panelists has extensive experience working with computer beginners.

They discussed how important it is for people to be able to use computers. Often times, when somebody comes to a library or an adult learning center for help, it’s because they have to. Domenic explained:

“I get all different types of people coming in, looking for jobs, collecting benefits, needing help with homework; you know, younger students are even having trouble with their computers. They just feel like they didn’t need to learn them, and now they’re seeing that in school they have to learn them. They have no choice.”

In fact, the idea of having no choice but to learn how to use a computer can be a considerable frustration for internet and computer beginners. As Jeannie Martin said, “these days, digital literacy is considered a basic skill. People need to know how to use computers to work, but also not to work, because they need to be able to claim their unemployment benefits online. I get many people who come in very frustrated, because the Department of Labor has sent them off to fill out [online] paperwork and claim their unemployment and they don’t even know where to start.”

Often, in addition to being frustrated, computer beginners find themselves afraid of breaking something. As Cheryl put it, “I’ve had people who are so relieved that the computer did not actually blow up. That is the level of fear that you deal with sometimes.” The other panelists agreed that this sentiment is common.

Given these fears and frustrations that computer beginners often bring to the table, the best way, the panelists agreed, to help somebody learn new computer skills is to find something he or she finds relevant to his or her own interests. “I show them all the neat things you can do with a computer, just to get them interested and to pull people in that way,” said Jennie, “If you start where somebody is, it’s a better way to go than enforcing stuff.” Domenic does the same thing. “I like to start off with something that they enjoy,” he said, “so I’ll start off by asking them, ‘what do you like?’ If a lady likes to cook, we look up recipes.”

Overall, the key to their work, the panelists said, was to be patient. “There’s this fine line to walk when you’re working with folks with computer skills, around not patronizing but also recognizing that fear stands in the way,” said Mary Kay.

“Don’t be afraid to step back and slow everything down for them,” said Domenic.

With patience, understanding and empathy, we can work to bring digital literacy to those who don’t have it, and in the process help to lessen the digital divide.

For more tips and information on working with Internet Beginners, check out the iConnect workshop toolkit, created during VCRD’s e-Vermont: