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Back to BASICs: Computer help group has new name, same drive to help build skills

HOUGHTON?- It’s an hour before the Portage Lake District Library opens, but if you enter through the side door, you’ll see a group of Tech students and community members already hard at work. They bow over smartphones, tablets and laptops, deep in conversation. They’re here to teach, and to learn.

This is BASIC (Building Adult Skills in Computing), formerly known as Online at the Library. The group meets on Saturday mornings while Tech is in session.

Though its name has changed, the group’s mission has remained the same – to help answer questions for, and teach computing skills to, community members.

Charles Wallace, associate professor and undergraduate program advisor in Michigan Tech’s computer science department, said one of the biggest changes since the program’s inception is the widening of platforms. While participants once brought in “almost exclusively” laptops, now they’re working on smartphones and tablets as well.

“Those provide some interesting challenges,” he said.

Because of a tablet or laptop’s condensed nature, Wallace said, there’s not as much room to provide guiding information for users, and “everything is very condensed.” Because of this, it’s not always obvious what a user’s choices are, he said, and a different approach is needed when exploring.

“They’re convenient and the touchscreen has certain kinds of advantages, but it also provides some challenges, especially when you’re learning,” he said.

Keith Atkinson, a second-year computer science major, has been helping out with the program since May and said he’s seen many community members who simply want to know what they can do with a new device.

Though he’s no stranger to the devices themselves, Atkinson said working with adults who are new to the technology has shown him a different point of view.

“One thing that’s really interesting about this is you see a much different end of computer usage,” he said. “Especially me, going into development, you realize you assume people know how to use a touchscreen, you assume people know what to do if something crashes. Doing this, you realize that’s not common knowledge, or not as common as you think it is.”

At the Jan. 23 session, community member Cindy Barth was learning how to print a coloring page from her laptop. She said she visits the group “on and off” as she has questions.

“I think it’s wonderful that we seniors have a place that we can come for help while we’re trying to increase our device skills, and not pay any money,” she said.

Through the BASIC sessions, she said she’s gained increased computer confidence, and has even been called upon by friends to answer their questions.

“I say, ‘I can help you with what I’ve learned,'” she said.

Barth likes that she can get help with Apple devices, she said, because the skills she learns related to her laptop can translate to the iPhone and iPad she also owns. Getting a fresh perspective doesn’t hurt, either.

“I like coming here because I get stuck in a box, and the tutors can think outside the box,” she said.

Wallace said that the main advantage the students have when it comes to technology is that they aren’t afraid to explore – a skill he said he hopes the sessions impart on participants.

“People get a little reluctant to explore, and exploring is how you learn. You always have to be exploring, because the technology is changing so fast,” he said.

Another faculty member helping out Jan. 23 was Kelly Steelman, an assistant professor in Tech’s department of cognitive and learning sciences.

She’s been working with the program for a year, but she didn’t originally intend to become a tutor. Instead, she entered her first session hoping to gain insight on where to take Tech’s program, and see if there were technologies that could be developed to help older adults interact with technology, or to help the student tutors help others.

“I’m really interested in how people use technology, how they pay attention, and how we can get them to find the things that they’re trying to find and design technology in such a way that people aren’t getting lost,” she said.

However, when that first session was short on tutors, she said she “just jumped in.”

“It’s been a blast. I really look forward to coming on Saturdays,” she said.

“People come with amazing questions and have a wide variety of skills and abilities coming in, but every week in an hour it seems like you can actually make a difference in someone’s life.”

In the future, Wallace said he hopes to recruit more students and bring the program to adults at local care facilities who can’t make the trek to the library.

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