Bridge the digital divide

Since the inception of public libraries in the United States, patrons have relied on them for access to the information services they need. While the value of libraries in a traditional sense is often placed on their books and collections, they have adapted to meet other information needs over time.

Libraries were early adopters of public internet connections, and the rapid development of digital technology created a demand for in-house public computers, and some years later, tablets and laptops for checkout. Public libraries have also been central in ensuring users have information and tools available to help them learn how to use these emerging technologies.

Since 2011, a group of Michigan tech students and faculty members have hosted weekly drop-in computer help at the Portage Lake District Library. The program, called Building Adult Skills In Computing (BASIC), helps teach community members how to use the internet to keep in touch with family, share pictures and letters, find information, and much more.

Students from Michigan Tech’s Computer Science and Cognitive and Learning Sciences departments volunteer as tutors, helping older adults with their computers, tablets, or smartphones, and answering open-ended questions such as: “How do I find an old friend on Facebook?”, or “How do I stay safe online?”.

The program was developed by Associate Professor of Computer Science, Charles Wallace, who started the project with the aim of easing seniors into the digital world.

“We emphasize learning how to learn, rather than teaching the specifics of a particular application like Excel or Facebook,” says Wallace. “As we know, apps and services change constantly, so we try to impart a deeper knowledge”.

Kelly Steelman, a Michigan Tech assistant professor of Cognitive and Learning Sciences, serves as a BASIC tutor and researcher alongside Wallace.

“Our emphasis is less on step-by-step instruction,” Steelman says, “and more on the underlying skills of exploration and building self-efficacy to help people become competent, confident users of computers and technology.”

The goals of the program are to reduce anxiety, encourage exploration, and boost confidence.

The group currently hosts their tutoring sessions at 9 a.m. every Saturday when Michigan Tech is in session at the Portage Lake District Library. Regular Saturday sessions returned to the library on March 30 following the university’s spring break. To confirm an upcoming BASIC event, call the library at 906-482-4570, or view our online events calendar at www.pldl.org.

Michael Stanitis is program coordinator at Portage Lake District Library.