Skip Navigation

Produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications

Subscribe Now
Campus & Community

UMD, State Combine to Get ‘Marylanders Online’

$6M Program Provides Digital Access, Literacy From Baltimore to Rural Areas

By Chris Carroll

senior woman high-fives instructor

Francena Bean-Waters of Baltimore and Tech Extension Educator Blaise Brennan '18 share a high-five after working through a smartphone operation question together. Below, Brennan explains the basics of phones and the internet as part of a class sponsored by the Marylanders Online program.

Photos by John T. Consoli

If Gen Z is composed of “digital natives” who never knew a time before smartphones and social media, then the students who clustered around a University of Maryland Extension educator at a Baltimore senior apartment complex last week might be dubbed digital pilgrims. They’ve traveled a long way over the decades, and now they’re determined to make the best of the new world of technology.

And oh, they have questions:

  • One woman had lost the “answering machine” inside her Android; could it be located so she could return calls to friends and family?
  • With a grimace, another held up her iPhone: How does she stop the spam calls and emails bombarding her from early morning to late at night?
  • A Marine Corps veteran with a trusty flip phone noticed that check-in and other functions at Veterans Administration clinics increasingly required QR code scanning. Did he finally have to surrender to the new tech?
  • A woman’s doctor had moved from Baltimore to Towson, but she doesn’t drive. How can she set up Zoom telehealth calls?

The half-dozen seniors had come to the “Smartphone Basics” class presented by Blaise Brennan ‘18, a tech educator for the UMD Extension who’s part of a program, Marylanders Online, funded by a $6 million grant from the state of Maryland to UMD to bridge the digital divide. With up to 20% of Maryland households lacking high-speed internet at the time of a 2021 Maryland Department of Planning report, the program aims to help populations disproportionately cut off from broadband internet access—residents of Baltimore and rural counties, Black and Hispanic people, low-income and older Marylanders—get online and access the wealth of information and opportunities found there.

instructor presents about smartphones to senior students

Brennan, who had majored in computer science at UMD, gamely tried staying on track with a slideshow about the operations of popular smartphones, but frequently diverted to answer stray questions and provide encouragement. The digital native trope, he said, overlooks the fact that even young people need support to learn important digital skills. “We all have gaps in our knowledge. I’m a software engineer by trade and even I have gaps,” he told a woman lamenting that she’d never grasp all the apps and settings on her phone.

“Find a gap, fill it in, pat yourself on the back,” exhorted the Marine, Rick Coburn ’61, who lives upstairs in the St. Mary’s Roland View Towers apartments. “You’ll get there.”

In addition to Brennan in Baltimore, a team of six more Tech Extension educators covers rural and suburban areas from Western Maryland to Eastern Shore; they help to coordinate state-funded giveaways of laptops while providing a range of digital literacy classes with numerous partners including agencies serving immigrants with limited English or people with disabilities, libraries, senior centers and various county offices.

The impetus for the program arose as Extension staff—who are charged with funneling the knowledge arising in College Park to communities all around the state—struggled to connect with some Marylanders to share advice on crop growth, personal and family health and a wide variety of other topics.

“We couldn’t get to those people to work with them because of a lack of technology,” said Jinhee Kim, associate dean of University of Maryland Extension in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and principal investigator for the Marylanders Online grant. “And that lack of technology was something that wasn’t just stopping us from communicating with them—it was also impacting their lives and cutting them off from opportunities.”

The program’s educators are backed by a growing team of “digital navigators”—volunteers and paid workers who become experts through Extension training so they can help others in their communities. Anyone in the state can contact a digital navigator for assistance with internet devices, software or online access at the Marylanders Online free tech support hotline.

Thousands of low-income Marylanders also got broadband for the first time, or a big chunk taken out of their existing internet bills; Tech Educator Maria Barga, who serves Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties, noticed that a federal program providing monthly allowances for internet service had essentially the same requirements as the computer giveaway she was also coordinating.

“You could come to one of our events and walk away not just with a device, but with internet service, too,” she said.

Still, there remain isolated pockets of the state with no broadband internet access, or which are just being connected, meaning a significant number of people are neophytes, Barga said.

“Some of our classes start with opening the box, and people don’t know how to turn on the device,” she said. “This isn’t a personal deficit, or something that’s their fault. They’ve just never had the opportunity before.”

In Baltimore, Brennan wrapped up the slideshow and transitioned into the part the seniors had been waiting for: one-on-one assistance. He pointed out features of phone operating systems even experienced users might overlook, like how to control notifications; he talked about signing up for do-not-call lists and opting out of marketing emails; and with Edie Wiley, who needed to schedule a remote doctor’s appointment, he wrote in longhand a detailed list of questions to ask and steps to take. It started with calling the office and finding out the telehealth platform—Zoom or something else—and ended with general advice for logging in.

Brennan had spent about 15 minutes with her when she folded the paper into her bag and left with a trail of “I don’t know what I’d do without you’s” behind her and Brennan calling out to remind her about another upcoming class.

To people who are comfortable surfing the internet, many of the problems the tech educators and navigators field can seem basic, said College of Information Studies Professor and Associate Dean for Faculty, Mega Subramaniam, curriculum leader for Marylanders Online—but it’s all a matter of perspective.

“Providing such foundational information can have a life-changing effect for someone who needs it, but never received it before,” she said. “That’s the joy in doing this work.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.