Innovative Ways Newcomers Are Using Technology

This blog post explores the importance of helping newcomers familiarize themselves with well-established technologies in the U.S. while also empowering them to participate in and benefit from emerging technologies. Below, we highlight four newcomers who have actively used tools such as voice-controlled technology, GPT chat bots, e-commerce platforms, and gamified instruction. By examining these examples and associated resources, service providers can glean valuable insights to explore effective pathways for implementing Digital Inclusion.

The primary focus of Digital Inclusion (DI) is often to provide clients with essential resources like technological devices, internet connectivity, and digital literacy skills. But there is additional potential in DI for service providers to collaborate with newcomers, fostering innovation and discovering novel ways to address daily challenges through technology. 

Emad's Story: Voice-Controlled Smart Phone

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), visual impairment affects approximately one sixth of the world’s population. Roughly 39 million worldwide have lost their vision completely, relying on assistance from others for daily chores. However, technological remedies offer hope: individuals coping with visual impairment can leverage Near Field Communication (NFC), a set of short-range wireless technologies enabling the exchange of data payloads, typically facilitated by a chip that is readable to smartphones.  

Emad, a 41-year-old Sudanese newcomer with visual impairment, arrived in the U.S. without family or friends in 2023. Although he was provided a laptop, a cellphone, and internet access, his impaired vision and limited digital literacy posed challenges. Emad struggled to contact his caseworker, connect with family back home, or seek emergency assistance. He needed help identifying currencies, navigating household items, reading text messages, maintaining social connections, and accessing emergency support.  

To address these challenges, Emad’s service organization reached out to funders about his unique situation. They presented a narrative of Emad’s experience, including photos and quotes that highlighted his challenges and the potential benefits of specific devices. (Funders often connect more deeply with individual stories, which are easier to visualize, rather than broader narratives about large groups).) Additionally, Emad’s service provider prepared a one-page template summarizing his story and needs to share with funders via email.  

A long-term funder selected Emad as the recipient of a donation for a smartphone developed to support individuals with visual impairment. These phones are often equipped with a camera, tactile keypad, and voice automation capabilities. Emad used apps to scan near field communication (NFC) object tags, which embed chips to allow devices to communicate. (Commercially available examples of this kind of app include Wayaround and SeeingAI.) Emad was able to identify household items such as tools and medication. Additionally, the screen reader also assists with reading text and emails. Emad also mastered voice commands to facilitate calls with his family in Arabic and identify SOS emergency buttons easily. Visual interpretation services significantly enhanced Emad’s independency and self-assurance.  

Service providers can assist newcomers like Emad in obtaining access to voice-controlled phones by following the steps below: 

  • Screen newcomers for unique needs to help identify those most at risk and/or most likely to benefit from innovative technological devices. 
  • Identify organizations that can provide direction on finding devices and digital literacy resources. (The National Federation of the Blind, for example, often provides phones, laptops, sight classes, and general advice for service providers.) 
  • Take an inventory of past and potential future funders who might be willing to provide one-time, low-investment, high-impact donations. 
  • Emphasize and prioritize digital literacy, as these devices require particular skills and training to set up. 
  • In Emad’s case, service providers started by training him to activate the power and SOS buttons with a long press. Subsequently, they provided a tactile overview of the phone’s layout, covering its front, back, and edges. Finally, they guided Emad on using voice control to make calls, access applications, and adjust volume levels. 
  • Connect newcomers with social networks and one-on-one volunteer conversation partners via platforms like the Front Porch app. 
  • Provide ongoing technical assistance until newcomers feel comfortable using the technology independently. 

Additional Resources for Clients with Visual Impairments: 

  1. The Be My Eyes platform links visually impaired individuals with a global network of volunteers and businesses, offering real-time video support and AI-powered assistance to address their needs. 
  2. The Braille Institute offers a wide range of cost-free programs and resources to support visually impaired individuals across age groups. 
  3. The American Foundation for the Blind provides resources for adults experiencing newfound loss of vision.  
  4. The app Lookout uses advanced image recognition technology to help visually impaired users identify relevant information about their surroundings. 

Rohullah's Story: Generative AI Language Tools

Newcomers encounter a multitude of ongoing challenges and tasks, like securing their immigration status, education, and employment. While some receive assistance from family or case workers, many others are left to navigate these tasks with limited English language literacy. Consequently, AI-powered reading and writing aids can prove to be transformative. 

Research indicates that Generative Pre-Trained Transformer (GPT) chatbots represent a significant advancement in natural language processing (NLP), offering clients support not only in navigating new languages but also in enhancing their language skills along the way.   

Rohullah, a former hydrology student from Kabul, arrived in the U.S. after leaving many family members behind in Afghanistan. As the primary provider and interpreter for his Dari-speaking mother and brother, Rohullah actively works on improving his English fluency. He strives to enhance his writing and communication skills both at work and in his community, crediting GPT for improvements in his quality of life. Rohullah uses AI technology to translate credentials on his college transcripts, generate lists for problem-solving at work, structure paragraphs in email correspondences, and assist with word choice when communicating with U.S. government agencies regarding immigration status updates.  

Some Considerations Around Using AI:  

AI can be efficient, but be sure to have humans verify results. AI data can be biased or inaccurate. There are also security risks associated with AI systems, like data breaches or manipulation of content (e.g., deepfakes). Familiarize yourself with AI policies at work or school and stay compliant with guidelines on ethical use and privacy. 

Service providers should consider introducing newcomers like Rohullah to some of the AI-powered language learning tools and resources below: 

  • Introduce apps like Ankiweb and Quizlet for AI-assisted memorization and tutoring.  
  • Keep updated notes of clients rolling off assisted WiFi programs—ensuring you extend access to writing assistance chatbots like Gpt4all for those without internet connection.  
  • Connect clients with online writing communities, where they can share ideas and make social connections in unison, like the EnglishClub.  
  • Recommend translation features for word processing software like Google Docs and Microsoft Word. 
  • Include new elements in your digital literacy classes, like text-to-speech software (e.g., NaturalReaders and ElevenLabs) to assist with wording and tone. 
  • Be aware of any costs associated with your recommendations. First offer free AI chat models, like Hugging Face, which can help generate and organize ideas in response to simple questions. 

Additional Resources—Generative AI Language Tools:  

  1. ChatGPT can help users practice and improve their language skills by engaging in conversation, curating relevant information, and providing feedback. 
  2. Grammarly focuses on optimizing users’ word choice, spelling, style, punctuation, and tone.  
  3. Generative AI assistant Copilot can help users produce creative images and text—though there is a monthly fee for upgrading. 
  4. The Literature Review section from this article in the International Journal of Advanced Computer Science and Applications shares relevant research about AI chatbots’ potential.  

Amir's Story: E-commerce Platforms

E-commerce platforms have the potential to empower newcomers by improving their communication, access to information, opportunities for collaboration, and sustainability in the marketplace. By leveraging the capabilities of the internet, newcomers can connect with others, exchange skills and knowledge, and create social, cultural, and entrepreneurial projects that generate income. Building an online presence through e-commerce can facilitate access to a global market, allowing newcomers to showcase unique products and services with a broader audience.  

Amir, a 39-year-old Arabic speaker who arrived with his family from Syria, was employed in the fast-food industry. Amir was enrolled in a DI program in a local resettlement agency called Tech Squad for additional one-on-one digital skill building. He worked with a volunteer who was trained to provide one-on-one digital skill building, known as a Tech Squad member, named Joseph. Amir expressed two aspirations: to learn English and to generate additional income. Amir’s wife also expressed interest in selling hand-made baskets with her friends and family. After setting up their online store, Amir and his wife are now hoping to expand their offerings to include Islamic women’s clothing before launching. Through his training with Joseph, Amir’s English proficiency and online savvy improved considerably. 

Service providers can support newcomers like Amir in building their own e-commerce sites by following these steps:  

  • Introduce newcomers to social media platforms as a starting point for promoting their products to new audiences. 
  • Share inspiring examples (see, for example, MADE51) to demonstrate how newcomers’ traditions, skills, knowledge, and craftsmanship can translate in the online marketplace. 
  • Educate newcomers about the benefits of having their own e-commerce site, which include skill-building and increased autonomy. 
  • Assist newcomers in conceptualizing businesses, determining budgets and timelines, choosing names and hosting providers, and selecting commercial platforms (e.g., Shopify, Magento, Big Commerce). 
  • Introduce the Refugee Microenterprise Development Program, which helps promote economic integration of ORR-eligible populations. Commercial lenders often require assets and credit. For those wanting loans—as well as training and technical assistance for expanding a small business—grants may be available through MED. 
  • Guide newcomers through the process of adding product pictures and descriptions, setting up secure payment methods, and arranging shipping. 
  • Discuss when and whether to ultimately launch the e-commerce site, highlighting the transferable skills acquired even without officially launching. 
  • Recruit volunteers with advanced technological skillsets to support newcomers. 
  • Encourage newcomers to explore other online work using the skills developed during e-commerce site building. 

Additional Resources on E-commerce Platforms for Newcomers 

  1. Read on the blog Spark about how one Syrian female built her successful e-commerce business, in part by using connections like Souqfann. 
  2. Visit Shumba, an example of an e-commerce site with artisan handbags and clothing. 
  3. Check out the Refugee Artisan Initiative, a collective e-commerce site routing 100% of profits back to refugee artisans. (Using these platforms can help skilled newcomers bypass some of the difficulties of running their own businesses.)  

Mahsa's Story: Gamification

Adding game-like elements to newcomer language instruction can enhance learning and retention. Studies indicate that integrating digital simulation games in computer-assisted language learning (CALL), for example, can yield significantly improved outcomes.  

Mahsa, a 22-year-old female, came to the U.S. from Kabul with her father, who worked as an embassy supervisor, in 2021. After arriving, she rapidly improved her English, even before enrolling in school, partly by engaging in enjoyable language games.  

Mahsa continued to benefit from gamification by learning how to type using fun online keyboard tests. Soon, she had mastered software applications like Google Docs and Photomath. Mahsa credits her swift academic progress—in subjects such as math, science, economics, and nutrition—in part to the quiz competitions she sought out online. Her success in school positioned her as a prominent advocate, changing laws to increase scholarship opportunities for college-aspiring refugees. 

Some Considerations Around Using Apps:  

Some software collects personal information, location data, and device identifiers to send you advertisements. Consider opting out if possible, and always review the app’s data policies.  

Service providers should consider introducing newcomers like Mahsa to some of the gamified learning resources and suggestions below:  

  • Introduce apps like Duolingo and Babbel for interactive language learning. 
  • Introduce timed typing games to improve keyboard skills (most are available for free online). 
  • Introduce trial-and-error games that encourage self-correction—see some helpful suggestions on 
  • Use quizzes and role-playing games (RPGs), customizing them individually based on the subject matter and learning target. 

Additional Gamified Learning Resources: 

  1. This article on digital simulation games outlines their efficacy in different learning contexts.  
  2. The Educational Resources Information Center website links to a number of academic studies on gamification’s effects on motivation and language acquisition. 
  3. Online tools like build out interactive games by automating resources, templates, and language around a participant’s topic of choice. 
  4. Public libraries often provide free access to online games like DingBatPuzzles, which generates visual word puzzles matching pictures to text for language development. 

By working directly with clients to access new technologies—and serving as a point of connection to additional resources, organizations, and individuals—service providers can leverage the power of DI to transform newcomers’ lives. 

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