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Undercurrents: V.I. Public Tapping into Free Internet

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community. This is the second in a three-part series about the efforts of the territory to bridge the digital divide.

There’s no doubt in her mind. Virgin Islanders are just as interested in using the internet as anyone else is, and certainly just as capable.

“The U.S. Virgin Islands, we want,” said Anita Davis. And she should know.

A full-time employee of Virgin Islands Next Generation Network, Davis oversees its public computer centers program, which provides free public access to computers with broadband capabilities at 33 different locations throughout the islands.

As Davis knows well, free access to a computer is great, but only if you know how to use it. That’s why a big part of her job is introducing people to computers and making them comfortable with the internet. She teaches the basics as well as advanced operations and cyber security.

H. Mark McGibbon, chief executive officer and president of viNGN, describes Davis as a trained security and computer operations expert and a workshop teacher. From September 2013 to September 2016, she’s conducted biweekly training seminars with 6,252 people.

She’s also a company representative within the community with a background in media and communications.

“People are finding that more and more, they need to be online,” Davis said. You have to go online to apply for veterans benefits or to take the GED exam, for example. You need to supply your email address for companies to contact you. “Even to apply for a job, you have to have skills a lot of people don’t have.”

Davis has worked directly with computer users. She found that adults often tended to “hold themselves back” and that students might need help learning how to use the computer for homework. These days, she concentrates on training the people who staff the PCCs.

“I’m trying to create a territory full of digital coaches,” she said.

In the early years of the program, to satisfy requirements of the federal grant, viNGN kept statistics on how many people used the computers at the public centers, but McGibbon and Davis said the data is no longer required and they don’t have definitive current numbers.

However, most centers do have sign in sheets for patrons and some random samples of those suggest the centers are getting a lot of use.

Ingrid A. Bough, territorial director of Libraries, Archives and Museums, a division of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said the division has nearly 4,000 registered PCC users. There are centers at all public libraries and anyone with a valid library card can use them; there are currently about 40,000 library card holders in good standing.

After conferring with staff at the centers, Bough said the average usage time is between one and a half and two hours, with the median being about two.

“While some patrons utilize the computers for just a quick email check or online search, others spend quite a lot of time for research, job searches, creation of a résumé, life-long learning, reading, schoolwork or online matters,” she said.

“We can state from observation that the student usage of the PCCs ranges between 40 percent and 50 percent,” she said.

The Labor Department provided computers for use by its clients even before viNGN set up the public computer centers. It now has 19 computers available on St. Thomas and 15 on St. Croix, according to Arah Lockhart, director of workforce development in the employment and training division.

Most of the users are youth or adults – people in the workforce – with a few seniors, she said.

Lockhart listed the main types of use as: job search activities, GED preparation, access to online training, customer skill and education assessments, and workshops, including introduction to computers, interviewing skills and résumé preparation.

Staff and volunteers at the various PCCs can offer one-on-one assistance. Additionally McGibbon noted, viNGN offers courses:

–                 The Absolute Beginners Computer Lab is provided live on within the PCC located at St. Andrew’s Church on St. Thomas each Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to noon;

–                 "The Coach is IN" provides digital help every third Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. within the PCC located at the Charles Turnbull Regional Library on St. Thomas;

–                 The Absolute Beginners Computer Lab is a basic online computer literacy course located on the viNGN website: https://sites.google.com/vingn-beginnner-computer-lab/home. Students of this free one-hour course can learn computer basics, take a written test and, if the student successfully passes, a certificate of completion is awarded. So far, Davis has issued 2,595 certificates.

(Next: Schooling youth via the internet.)

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