Dispatches from the Front Lines

I read an article a few days ago  on Seacoast Online regarding the Digital  Divide and what Maine  is doing to bring people up to speed. I sent the link to my son Jeff who is in graduate  school at Drexel in  Philadelphia. Jeffrey is  involved in the same effort,  one of his many pursuits in addition  to school. I thought you might be interested in reading Jeff’s replies to my  inquiries.

Mike

Dad,

Here’s a link to the Free Library’s page about our Hot Spots. The Hot Spot Initiative is part of the larger Freedom Rings Partnership, which is a coalition of managing partners who are implementing this $6.3 million grant from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (the same funder as  in the article you sent). Here’s the BTOP page specifically about our grant.

The deliverables of the grant are to:

Establish 77 public computer centers (FLP has established 6 of them)

Provide over 200,000 hours of hands-on training to 15,000 people at over 130 training locations citywide (this is over the 2 years of the grant)

Distribute over 5,000 computers to public housing residents

Generate 5,000 new broadband household subscribers and 50 small business subscribers­

So the grant really has two main goals. The first is pure training and access–putting computers in reach where they weren’t before, and providing the resources that people need to learn how to use them. To this end, we work with a lot of senior citizens (I’ve got a group of six that have been coming in almost every day into my Hot Spot). The other goal is to provide assistance to job seekers. With many entry-level job applications being accepted solely online, with long and complicated pre-employment screenings, people with low computer literacy need a lot of help navigating these sites. That means helping them develop resumes, locate jobs to apply to, and actually submit their applications.

You want information specifically about my outreach efforts?

Jeff

Dad,

The digital divide is real, it is systemic, and it is wider than we could have ever imagined. In my work as a computer trainer for a BTOP-funded computer lab, I assist patrons of all ages who have fundamental deficits in their computer literacy. My 8-seat computer lab, which is hosted by a Philadelphia High School, is open to the community 20 hours a week. I teach teenagers effective search strategies for school projects, train seniors on fundamental computing skills like mousing and typing, and help job seekers draft resumes and navigate online applications.

Some people have proposed that public schools closed the digital divide by providing students with daily access to computers. I would caution these critics that robust tech labs are not universal, especially at the chronically underfunded urban and rural schools which most need those resources. And anyway, academic librarians at universities across the country will tell you that students from even the most privileged backgrounds are entering college without the most rudimentary of search skills. Clive Thompson wrote about this problem in this month’s issue of Wired:

[Researchers at the College of Charleston] wanted to know how skillful young folks are at online search. [The] team gathered a group of college students and asked them to look up the answers to a handful of questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the students generally relied on the web pages at the top of Google’s results list.

[The lead researcher] pulled a trick: He changed the order of the results for some students. More often than not, those kids went for the bait and also used the (falsely) top-ranked pages. Pan grimly concluded that students aren’t assessing information sources on their own merit—they’re putting too much trust in the machine.

Other studies have found the same thing: High school and college students may be “digital natives,” but they’re wretched at searching. In a recent experiment at Northwestern, when 102 undergraduates were asked to do some research online, none went to the trouble of checking the authors’ credentials. In 1955, we wondered why Johnny can’t read. Today the question is, why can’t Johnny search?

OK, OK, so schools are failing to prepare students for the rigors of college coursework. What’s the worst that could happen–Johnny will write a poorly sourced term paper? This, of course, understates what is in reality a major problem. We’re creating a workforce that will be ill-prepared to meet the challenges of a globalized marketplace.

And what about more immediate impacts? What about the student who lacks evaluation skills looking for sexual health information online? And what about my other computer users, who have the same poor search habits as students? I have a group of senior citizens that come into my lab every day. Some of these folks have computers at home, others have never used one in their life. After we covered basic computer skills, I moved on to the Internet. One gentleman started clicking on banner ads and entering his personal information. I stopped him before did something he’d regret, and made sure my next lesson covered internet safety and privacy. A similar thing happened with a job seeker, who spent 20 minutes filling out an “application” for a job at CVS Pharmacy before I came over and realized she was only registering for a job searching aggregator.

We live in an age of digital communication. A huge segment of the population–which statistically we can identify by race, income, and educational attainment–is being left out of the conversation. If we’re looking to put America back to work, and to create the workforce of tomorrow, then we must answer the question of digital inequality. It is a solution that requires provisions for access and training. Labs like these are as good a place as any to start.

Here’s the link to  that Wired article

Jeff

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