February 20, 2014

A First Step toward Digital Literacy

A new online course helps novice computer users get up to speed

Media, commerce, education, communication—so much of our daily life now takes place online. But for the millions of Americans who lack basic computer skills, this rich cloud of information is elusive.

Working with Intel, EDC is aiming to close this digital divide by building a new online version of Intel’s Learn Easy Steps curriculum. The program helps novice users learn how to begin harnessing the power of computers.

“It’s all about helping adults with low technological literacy develop the skills they need to interact in an increasingly digital world,” says Barbara Treacy, director of EDC’s EdTech Leaders Online (ETLO), which is leading the course development.

In targeting a whole segment of the population that has been left out of the technology revolution of the 21st century, Treacy says it is important to start with the basics.

“The first thing we do is teach people how to get an e-mail account so they can log in. So even if you don’t know what e-mail is or how to use it, that’s ok—you will learn that skill.”

The first module introduces common nomenclature and walks users through the basic functions of a computer. The complexity of the tasks gradually increases, and by the end of the five modules, learners have had hands-on experience with navigating the Internet, using word processing and spreadsheet applications, and creating simple presentations. A self-check at the end of each module helps learners assess their own knowledge and reinforces key ideas from the lessons.

Treacy, who previously taught developmental mathematics for adult learners at the University of Massachusetts Boston, says the course is designed with the interest and comfort of the users in mind.

“This course aligns with what we know about what works with an adult audience,” she says.

A need for digital literacy

According to Marne Dunn, a digital empowerment program manager at Intel, the course is doing much more than just teaching people how to get online.

“We know that some people possess the skills to access the Internet and post on Facebook, but are not aware of the many online resources available for lifelong learning and managing day-to-day life,” says Dunn. “We also know that many adults interested in increasing economic opportunities lack the basic skills required to use office productivity applications. We are trying to promote digital literacy so these adults can participate in a growing digital world.”

She sees the course as being relevant for millions in the United States who have had limited access to computers and the myriad opportunities for learning, communication, and commerce that they offer. Recent studies by Pew’s Internet and American Life Project found that 15 percent of Americans over 18 do not use the Internet, and two-fifths of those without a high school degree are offline.

Intel created the content for Learn Easy Steps and initially released it as a lengthy print document to serve as the backbone of facilitated, face-to-face training sessions. But many people who took the course had limited literacy skills and struggled to follow the text-heavy resource. In some cases, facilitators resorted to reading sections of the course out loud to participants—hardly a sustainable model.

Dunn believes the new online version of the course will greatly expand Intel’s ability to reach these populations in need. It will also provide a practice resource for students who have completed the facilitated class.

“We think the online course can be used in a classroom-type of setting, where you have coaches available to support people as they go through the online training,” she says. “There are all kinds of settings—community centers and libraries among them—where this will be a fit.”

The first five Intel Learn Easy Steps modules will launch in February; additional ones targeting new skills are expected later in 2014.