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Digital Literacy Instruction: Models for Public Libraries

by on February 12, 2013

“New Americans and the Digital Literacy Gap,” a recent article in American Libraries, tells the stories of two library systems that are helping immigrants to bridge the digital divide. While acknowledging that major urban centers have always drawn new immigrants, the article focuses on immigrant communities in mid-size American cities, observing that “some come to the US without significant digital literacy skills, and local libraries take up the challenge to help them meet their online needs.”

These two library systems—the Idaho Commission for Libraries and the Hennepin County (Minnesota) Library system—provide digital literacy instruction models that can be utilized by public libraries of all kinds. While the article focuses on digital literacy instruction for new immigrants in mid-size cities, these models can be used by any library seeking to narrow the digital literacy gap in its own community, among not only immigrants but also US-born adults. So what elements of these two models can we utilize in our own efforts to narrow the digital literacy gaps in our communities?

Training the trainers. The Idaho Commission for Libraries’ program “trains foreign language speakers to, in turn, teach digital literacy to others in their language groups.”  Idaho staff use digital literacy tools available through library databases and other free online resources to create digital literacy guides on high-demand topics such as finding a job, using computers and the Internet, and access to e-government services. These guides are then used by trainers to help learners develop skills necessary for life in 21st-century America.

Recruiting volunteers. Both Idaho and Hennepin County’s programs recruit volunteers from within the community groups they wish to reach. For immigrant communities, the use of volunteers who speak their native languages helps to bridge cultural and digital gaps. Utilizing volunteers to provide digital literacy instruction allows library staff to focus on planning, administering, and evaluating the instructional program.

Planning. Staff working on the Idaho Commission for Libraries’ program spent three months “to clarify goals, develop the guides, find trainers, and deliver the sessions.” Hennepin County Library staff work closely with community partners to plan instructional programming that is responsive to community needs. Planning is important in enabling instructors to be well prepared to teach and helps to ensure that instructional time is spent efficiently and effectively.

Identifying specific learning outcomes. Idaho’s program seeks to help learners build skills for applying for jobs, finding information for their families, helping their kids with school, and living in 21st-century America, “where technology know-how is very important.” Hennepin County’s program seeks to help users practice basic mouse and keyboarding skills, learn to use the Internet, access unemployment benefits online, apply for jobs online, and set up and sign in and out of online accounts. Identifying specific learning outcomes not only enables library staff to better evaluate the success of the program but also helps learners identify exactly what should be learned and what is to be accomplished.

Public libraries can learn much about developing and implementing successful digital literacy instructional programs by studying examples such as those provided by the Idaho Commission for Libraries and the Hennepin County Library system. We can also learn by sharing our own stories. How has your library worked to narrow the digital literacy gap in your community?