Local agencies spending more time bridging ‘digital divide’ for those who don’t use tech in Johnson County

Johnson County Library branches offer digital learning spaces, public computers and tech training to bridge the digital gap.

Nationwide trends show that the rate of tech adoption among Americans continues to climb, but a small part of the population (roughly 10%) remains without digital tools or internet access.

The Shawnee Mission area is no exception to this trend, as demonstrated by the handful of experiences of city staff members and staff at the Johnson County Library, whose roles are increasingly vital for folks who live without internet.

Dylan Reiter, lead information specialist at the Antioch branch, had just used Google Maps to help an 85-year-old Shawnee resident find directions to the DMV in Mission, about two miles away.

“Once again, I’m not as smart as your machine,” the resident said.

Meanwhile, at the front desk of the Shawnee Civic Centre, Facilities Supervisor Pam Oswald devotes a good chunk of her day to Googling information for non-digital residents who call asking for help. Those calls are random, anywhere from seeking phone numbers for the hospital or doctors to info on the nearest auto mechanic or grocery store.

“There’s a lot of people who do not have internet or smartphones,” Oswald said. “As soon as they start talking, I start Googling. They don’t know how to find the phone numbers, and they don’t have phone books. They just don’t know how to get information unless they have a smartphone.”

Johnson County Library staff say people who don’t use digital resources are increasingly visiting libraries asking for help with how to use a computer, how to apply for a job online, or how to conduct online research, among other tasks.

How non-digital folks access resources

Dylan Reiter offers tech training sessions at Antioch Library.

Johnson County Library staff say people don’t use online resources for a variety of reasons — some voluntary, some not. Sometimes, they don’t know how to use a computer, let alone the internet. Other barriers stand in the way, such as the costs of internet service and devices. And still others choose not to go online as a means to preserve their privacy.

Researchers and tech critics have that this digital divide often manifests between demographic groups: the rich and the poor, the Boomer-plus generation and anyone younger than 40.

“Almost everything is done online these days,” said Marty Johannes, careers and personal finance librarian for the Johnson County Library. “The old way of doing things, using print and using the phone, are becoming somewhat outdated. Sometimes, we’re not always able to even find a phone number for people to use.”

Some residents who don’t use the internet, especially seniors, say they use other channels of communication to find out information, including television and radio stations

Ways to bridge the digital divide

Sunny Roberts, an 80-year-old Mission resident, embraces computers and Google as positive ways to access digital resources.

Public agencies are utilizing a variety of platforms to distribute information and provide tools for learning new technology.

Several cities in the Shawnee Mission area distribute information on their websites and social media platforms but also distribute more timeless resources via their print brochures, such as CityLine in Shawnee or TownTalk in Lenexa.

One local group, Senior Computer Users Group of Greater KC, formed several years ago to help seniors develop practical skills with computers.

At the Shawnee Mission School District, communications staff use a wide range of platforms to communicate with families of students. David Smith, chief communications officer, said they distribute information via print materials, on radio and TV stations, social media, emails, text alerts and the district website.

“We don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” Smith said. “We want to be able to communicate with our families both using technological means that are most appropriate to them, and also when we can, in the language that works for them.”

Johannes said she has seen progress in bridging the digital divide, but she believes more can be done as a society. One way the library staff helps bridge the gap is “What the Tech!?”, a program that provides one-on-one technology sessions for residents who need help utilizing digital tools or the internet.

Reiter echoed Johannes’s comments, saying he hopes to equip people with the tools they need to thrive in an increasingly digital world. He sees technology as just one other tool to get people what they need.

“From what I see, while it’s true many people are on the side of that divide where they’re lacking in either the want to or capability to be a part of this digital world, many are aware that they at least have to dip their toes in,” Reiter said.

Nonetheless, some seniors have embraced new technology. Reiter said he frequently sees people in their 80s and 90s with smartphones and tablets. Sunny Roberts, an 80-year-old Mission resident who recently tried out Johnson County Library’s “What the Tech?” program, said seniors who aren’t interested in learning new technologies will become uninformed.

“For one thing, people are not curious,” Roberts said. “I’m an extremely curious person. I love to learn. I bought encyclopedias for myself because I was always wondering about stuff. Now I’m on Google, and I could not live without Google. It knows everything.”