KEYSPOT staff member with student. Photo by permission: Drexel Freedom Rings Partnership http://bit.ly/11q5OXa
Every February 6th, the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) promotes Digital Learning Day, a national campaign to recognize efforts to “engage students, celebrate and empower teachers, and create a healthy learning environment personalized for every child.”
The AEE highlights the teaching successes of leveraging technology in schools and colleges, but what about broadening the conversation to include innovative digital approaches to learning that take place outside of the traditional classroom setting? The Open Technology Institute (OTI) serves as an evaluator to over eighty neighborhood computing centers and training programs in Philadelphia’s KEYSPOTS—many of which provide more informal classrooms for novice technology users. KEYSPOTS, run by the Philadelphia Freedom Rings Partnership (FRP), are situated within trusted community organizations, universities, as well as government agencies like local recreation centers. The National Telecommunications Information Administration awarded the FRP federal funds for KEYSPOTS through the Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP).
Many adults coming to these centers attended school before technology became ubiquitous. From our final analysis in January 2013 the average age of KEYSPOT participants was 42 years old. However, they still require the computer and Internet skills necessary to function in our digital world, as much as students in traditional classrooms. Compounding this, most live in poverty, creating an additional barrier to technology access and digital literacy. OTI held several focus groups in 2012 where participants noted cost as a reason for lack of a computer and/or Internet at home, with one specifying that she hoped to get Internet “when [she] can afford it.” KEYSPOT survey respondents also cited cost (30 percent), along with not having a computer (57 percent), as the most common reasons for not having a home Internet connection.
When Access Isn’t Enough
Part of what makes the FRP’s collaborative approach innovative is that it often pairs access with educational trainings, recognizing that Internet access alone does not always enable adults to use these tools. While 52 percent of participants attend KEYSPOTS for various reasons such as looking for employment or checking email, about 42 percent of survey respondents said they came for trainings.
“I’m taking up learning how to do spreadsheets, doing a tax sheet, emailing, [...] the whole gamut to become more computer literate,” one participant explained.
KEYSPOTS also help novice learners overcome fear, one of the main barriers to digital literacy. Some users described “shaking” with fear or being afraid to even turn on the computer. The trainings and support offered at KEYSPOT locations help users move beyond this.
“Now I know the computer—you can’t break it; it won’t hurt you. So now I won’t have that fear,” said one focus group participant.
As noted by literacy advocates, first you learn to read and then you read to learn. A corollary applies to digital literacy: learn to use the web, then use the web to learn. “Filling out [job] applications, finding [family] that I’ve been looking for for a long time, and getting my schoolwork done, trying to get my education, my GED. It helps me accomplish a lot of things,” said one focus group participant, explaining what she likes to do online. KEYSPOT staff also shared how youth-oriented centers provide a safe and supportive space for youth to use computers for homework assignments, connecting with their social networks or learning about nutrition.
Digital Learning Day also seeks to celebrate teachers and recognize the elements of healthy learning environments that help people achieve their goals. While participants discussed the integral role trainers and computer lab assistants play in fostering a productive educational atmosphere, KEYSPOT program managers shared their intentional efforts behind creating these healthy learning spaces.
“We [try to be] a welcoming place that they can feel at home in to learn,” said one KEYSPOT staffer. “And I think that's a big part of learning, is that you're comfortable learning and there's a sense of order and accomplishment.”
Access to Opportunity
For some, the KEYSPOT centers and the services they provide represent more than overcoming fear of technology or learning digital skills. One focus group participant notably shared that upon entering recovery to overcome years of addiction and homelessness, he found himself at a KEYSPOT, learning about computers for the first time. He got to pursue new educational goals and received support from trainers that went beyond learning digital skills.
“Not only did the class help me navigate the computer, you build social skills. [The] ultimate communication is one human being relating to another, [...] because we learn from each other, that love and concern [...] it builds your character and it inspires you to see that you possess the same capability as the teachers.”
Access to broadband and computers can open doors for personal and professional development, like accessing online courses, job applications, health information and community engagement opportunities. Digital Learning Day highlights the hard work that goes on in our nation’s schools and colleges to equip students for this digital reality. Yet, we also need to recognize the less traditional spaces that support continuing education for those most in need.
The KEYSPOT initiative provides a great example, but there are many similar initiatives around the nation, often anchored at public libraries—another key learning environment. However our work is far from over. With library systems losing funding, the looming transition to an online-only GED, and the end of the federal grant that created the KEYSPOT initiative, we need to continue the push for sustained digital inclusion. Whether young or old, current or former student, we all need access to computers and the Internet, as well as the know-how to meaningfully interface with the digital world. As one KEYSPOT staffer said, “It’s important to bring that absolutely indispensable component of 21st century living to people who have been left by the wayside, in more ways than one.”