Volunteers teach learners at Cove Point Retirement in Provo, Utah.

Digital Literacy: More Than Just a Skill

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. Dustin Steinacker gave us an update on his work with the United Way of Utah County in Provo, Utah.

What is an important moment that will stay with you long after your Fellowship year?

A few months ago, somebody showed up to one of our courses with a very old laptop that he could barely run. The device’s limited memory meant that even the most basic work or internet browsing took forever. This severely limited his children’s ability to study as well. And unfortunately, he couldn’t afford a new computer. After a little research, I gave him a few resources so he could triple his laptop’s memory for less than $10 and speed up operations.

A couple of months later, he showed up again with the same laptop and a little plastic box. He’d ordered the memory I’d recommended, but was too intimidated to open his laptop and install it himself. I installed the memory, and his relief was obvious when the laptop turned on in only a couple of minutes and was able to load multiple websites without freezing.

The moment stays with me because I’ve realized that education is about more than just technical skills. Sometimes it’s about knowing that there’s a solution in the first place. So many people assume that their financial barriers are insurmountable, and they think that they need to buy a completely new piece of equipment, when a few tweaks or an inexpensive upgrade is all they need to get better use out of what they already have.

What advice would you have for the next cohort of Fellows?

I’ve heard a lot about digital literacy as a right, and I hope that people can gain a greater understanding of why exactly this is the case, and formulate their programs accordingly. A flyer advertising a “computer class” doesn’t always attract many people, because digital literacy isn’t about computers or even the skills involved in using them. It’s about the person who used to have to walk to the utility office to pay his gas, and who now knows how to pay the bill online from his home. It’s about the person who’s devoured the movie reviews in his local paper for years, learning about RottenTomatoes.com for the first time and scanning hundreds of reviews he never knew he had access to. It’s about the mother previously so concerned with security that she didn’t let her children use the computer, learning about web filters and free antivirus software that gave her the confidence to let her kids access the web.

We try to teach skills, but what results in attendance, excitement, and transformation is helping people incorporate technology into their lifestyle through those skills. It requires listening to people on an individual basis and modifying your plans according to their needs—but it’s worth it.

When you think of what your community has accomplished this year, what are you most proud of?

The sites we work with have been wonderful, and their support is about more than just putting us on their calendar and giving us a room to teach. I love seeing staff at the social service organizations and retirement homes where we teach. They bring up our class in conversations, and offer great suggestions about how we can improve our courses. People who attend our class one week often evangelize the course to others. The organizations, volunteers, and staff we’ve worked with have really taken the charge of digital inclusion to heart.

What is something that you have struggled with and overcome/learned from?

One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is striking that perfect balance between volunteers and attendees at our classes. If we have too many volunteers, it’s hard to keep each person occupied and keep their enthusiasm up to attend the following week.

Too few, and the learners may be intimidated by a class which lacks the opportunity to address their problems one on one.

However, I’ve done my best to learn from these situations and to adapt accordingly. When there are too many learners for me to instruct individually, I begin a discussion, and we hold a group workshop on a single topic of group interest. With too many volunteers, I pull people aside in groups of one or two and involve them in the planning process, hoping to give them a sense of ownership over the program and increase their interest to continue volunteering in the following weeks. I’m hoping that my successor can learn even more on achieving this balance!

How have you grown this year?

I’ve done technical support work and volunteer instruction before, and one of the ways I’ve really developed from this program is learning to take this from the micro level—one person, one issue—to the macro level. At the micro level, where we’re focusing on individual problems and lessons, we might end up teaching a skill or having a great interaction with somebody, but it doesn’t necessarily “stick.” However, at the macro level and in consultation with our learners, we can provide our learners with tools which allow them to take control over their own learning and have the confidence to continue their relationship with technology.

I’ve gone from teaching some of the same points week after week to a person to providing them with hard-copy printouts from their device’s manual, allowing them to push ahead to new topics and areas of interest. Previously, I went into a class with a pretty sure idea of what I wanted to teach, but now I am learning to change topics and scopes on the fly, based on what seems to strike a chord with people and pique their interest.

In short, I’ve done my best to discover how to help our learners guide each class or one-on-one interaction, while using my expertise and experience in the program to provide a foundation and structure for each interaction.

United Way of Utah County continues their partnership with the Provo Library, launching new digital literacy programs with the help of current Fellow Jamie Littlefield.

Dustin Steinacker