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Lessons From a Year Teaching Digital Literacy

Digital Inclusion Fellows reflect on a year spent spreading digital literacy.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: sagesolar/Flickr)

In May of 2015, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) (a Portland, Oregon-based organization that facilitates the exchange of information between non-profits around the world working in technology sectors) and Google Fiber announced the first-ever Digital Inclusion Fellowship. The goal was to take a handful of locally focused organizations — the stipulation being that they work within one of the then-eight metro areas where Google Fiber exists; corporate synergy and all — and provide them with additional resources.

The 16 fellows were selected based on past work, city-specific requirements (if a city had a large Spanish-speaking population, preferred candidates would speak Spanish; if the city had a big senior population, the preferred candidate would demonstrate experience in that sector), and the scope of the project. The fellowship lasted one year, starting last July, and Google Fiber put around $1 million toward salaries and stipends used to launch new programs or expand previous ones.

With the year-long fellowship drawing to a close, I asked a handful of fellows about what they learned during a year focused on spreading digital literacy.

Fellow DeAndre Pickett, who works with Atlanta’s Literacy Action, a non-profit that began offering adult basic education way back in 1968, writes in an email: “[We] did not have a buzzing digital literacy program before the Fellowship came.”

With the assistance of the fellowship, Pickett used the extra funds to develop a Train the Trainer program, a curated toolkit that Literacy Action provides to other non-profit and government organizations — the City of Atlanta Parks and Recreation Department, for example — to more quickly disperse knowledge. Students become teachers who are around to inform more students. Like a viral outbreak, but good.

“It is an incredible joy to see a student send an email for the first time, or a parent checking his/her son’s grades through the parent portals, or that student passing a section of the GED … all because they garnered the support and training to become more digitally literate.”

The toolkit includes instructions for how best to work with varying levels of adult learning comprehension, maps of where the digital divide exists in Atlanta, and relevant TED talks.

“We are very strict on the 20/60/20 rules,” writes Pickett, a technique that involves the instructor teaching for 20 percent of the time, two-way interaction for 60 percent, and the instructor taking the reins for the final 20. Lessons include how to find jobs and create resumes, how to research and apply for public assistance, and how to study for exams like the GED and ACT. “At the end of the training, participants are given mock lesson plans and they have to make a presentation on how they would teach the class,” he writes. “It helps with collaboration, critical thinking, and marketing.”

In Texas, the non-profit Austin Free-Net learned the importance of going door-to-door. “[With the fellowship], we hosted a number of community walks, where volunteers spoke with residents about the digital literacy resources available to them,” writes fellow Daniel Lucio in an email. “Thus far, we’ve been able to connect with over 1,800 households in under-connected communities.”

Triangle Literary Council, a Raleigh-based non-profit, has been teaching basic literacy and life skills to the community for more than 45 years. But during those years, the organization steered clear from working in the realm of digital literacy. That changed last June when it was awarded a fellowship. James Butts, a selected fellow and the organization’s digital inclusion director, used the funds to create a mobile computer lab, where he teaches “job readiness skills and financial responsibility awareness.”

That latter element is particularly important in a low-income community where payday loan companies and “rent-to-own” shops thrive. Since the program started, members of the community have been able to research the negative implications of accepting high-interest loans and purchasing relatively cheap products on installment plans.

“[We teach that] an individual will save money if they understand the basics of interest rates and the habit of spreading smaller payments over a longer period of time,” Butts writes. While common knowledge for people with readily available Internet, information like this is vital for its newest users.

In year two, NTEN and Google Fiber will focus on awarding programs concentrated in specific focus areas, like public libraries and public housing. In June, they announced the 22 city hosts that will be awarded 2016 fellowships; the specific fellows were named a few weeks later. There are a few repeat fellows on the list — including Butts, quoted above — but there are new entries as well, like the San Francisco Public Library, and the Portland-based Free Geek, which recycles old technology and provides it for free or cheap to the community.

“It is an incredible joy to see a student send an email for the first time, or a parent checking his/her son’s grades through the parent portals, or that student passing a section of the GED … all because they garnered the support and training to become more digitally literate,” Pickett writes. “That’s how you change the face of literacy.”