In May 2015, NTEN and Google Fiber launched the Digital Inclusion Fellowship, a new national program investing in local communities and nonprofit organizations to address the digital divide. Sixteen Fellows comprised the first cohort, and they have shared their work with us. We asked James Butts to give us an update on his work with the Triangle Literacy Council in Raleigh, North Carolina.
What is something that you have struggled with and overcome or learned from?
The greatest obstacle I had to overcome was my determination to finish my well laid-out plan. To truly meet the needs of my students, I needed to be flexible.
My organization decided to have a mobile computer lab as part of our effort to conduct digital training in our community. We purchased new laptops, I gathered information about various aspects of digital training, and I meticulously developed an outstanding PowerPoint presentation. I was ready, or so I thought.
In fact, we did not get past the lesson on how to use the computer mouse. At first, I was frustrated that we did not get very far in my wonderful presentation. However, I realized I was meeting the needs of my students. They completely enjoyed themselves and were eager for more during the next class. They felt part of this emerging technology, which before had kept them isolated. This point becomes more meaningful when you consider that my first class was at a senior nursing facility. Some students had not seen their relatives in quite some time. So you can imagine the thought of communicating with the “outside world” once again.
That first class taught me that I might have to lay aside my best plans when it comes to actually meeting the needs of my students. Since then, I remind myself before each new class that the students may vary in their needs and desires. I am now more determined to meet them where they are to help them cross this digital divide, in their way and in their own time.
What is an important moment that will stay with you well past your Fellowship year?
I am used to working directly with students and encouraging them through personal interaction. Initially, I thought that this time it would be difficult because the computer would be “in the way” of what I wanted to relay to my students. I was completely wrong!
During my first class with seniors, I saw their excitement and determination as some discovered for the first time how to use the dreaded computer mouse. After the first class, I thought I would never see them again. However, at the next class, they were all ready and eager to attack the mouse again. I found an online program that assisted new users and made noises when a person completed a specific task. The sounds of lasers shooting, cows mooing, dogs barking, and cats meowing in the air brought that victorious smile to their faces that I was used to seeing in my other literacy classes.
What were you surprised by in your digital inclusion work?
I was surprised the most by the adventurous spirit of our senior citizens. The director of one of the local senior community centers told me, “If you have a computer class, they will come.” I was in doubt, but I was proven completely wrong. They came! They came in wheelchairs, with canes, and with their friends and neighbors, and they kept me on my toes.
Participants in any class may feel embarrassed or timid to ask questions. I have learned that some seniors are not embarrassed or timid, but will instead stop you in your tracks if you are going too fast, or if there is a concept that remains a mystery. They may say that they are fine, but I remind them that after many, many years of computer training (which is actually less than a year), I can read faces. We laugh and have a great time learning together.
Where do you want the digital conversation in (your city, state) to go in the next 5 years?
There are quite a few organizations that are actively involved in bridging the digital divide. I could only image what the collaboration of resources would look like if there was such an effort to combine forces and communicate with each other. To this end, The Triangle Literacy Council and the Kramden Institute have instituted a Digital Task force. We have met several times and brought local leaders together.
While there are digital training courses and computers available in our area, internet access seems to be the hardest to secure. Raleigh, North Carolina has established free Wi-Fi locations in the city, but this has its shortcomings. Our libraries have internet access, but there can be long waiting times.
I hope our city will continue the dialogue for internet access at low cost to our residents, and that our digital literacy efforts do not stop at basic computer training. I hope there will be extensive dialogue about computer program certification and computer science opportunities to the underemployed segments in our communities. Specifically, programs to give those individuals who do not have the financial means access to training, equipment, and the internet, and an opportunity to reach their goals and dreams.
What advice would you have for the next cohort of Fellows?
I have to admit that I was jealous of other Fellows whose organizations were already involved in the area of digital training, or appeared to have greater assets. However, I later found that the grass was not always greener on the other side. My organization was not previously involved in digital literacy, so I was free to determine the direction of the program. I was not hampered by other programs or instructors who had tried various methods before and declared them useless without the opportunity of trying them personally.
The size of your organization does not matter. Rather, it is the size of your effort and the understanding that what you’re about to do could change someone’s life—one click of the mouse at a time.
James has returned to the Digital Inclusion Fellowship for a second year with Triangle Literacy Council. He continues to teach technology and build Triangle Literacy Council’s digital literacy programming.