September 19, 2014

Bristol’s Literacy Academy Bridges Digital Divide

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Just a few short years ago, basic familiarity with computers was an asset that might give a candidate an edge in finding a job. Now, as newspaper classifieds have dwindled and migrated online, that basic familiarity is needed just to find an ad for a job. State and local governments, too, are looking to streamline services by pushing everything from vehicle registration to unemployment insurance applications online. Digital literacy is fast becoming essential.

In Bristol, a city straddling the border of Tennessee and Virginia, the Bristol Public Library (BPL) is taking digital literacy training a step further. The library employs a small staff of full-time teachers, who have made computer training a key component of BPL’s 25 year-old Patricia Freedman Literacy Academy (PFLA).

The academy launched as a GED prep program in the late 1980s, and even then, it offered a small computer component for students who wanted to learn keyboarding, said BPL Executive Director Jud Barry. Computers have since become ubiquitous, and five years ago, BPL opened a new main library with a computer lab, where the teachers are available for one-on-one instruction five days per week.

“There’s a skill gap for a lot of folks that we as a society haven’t addressed very effectively,” Barry said. “The digital divide isn’t only about hardware.”

New students can enter the program at any time. BPL begins by assigning them an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) tailored to their specific educational needs, which might range from adult literacy to GED prep, to filling out online job applications, to more advanced work on business software like Microsoft Office. This IEP establishes a basic framework that helps measure the student’s progress.

“What we find in working with people through the literacy academy is that oftentimes, they have many different kinds of needs for different kinds of services. … If an individual comes up and says ‘I need some help with these [online] job applications,’ it goes beyond being a reference transaction,” Barry said.

Barry described himself as disappointed that libraries were “relegated to the second tier” when the U.S. Department of Labor and Connect2Compete (C2C), a nonprofit supported in part by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, recently announced their plan to provide digital literacy training at nearly 2,800 American Job Centers operated by C2C.

“As a public library, we understand that people’s digital literacy needs are complex,” Barry said. “They don’t only have to do with job-hunting. They have to do with housing, health, transportation, and education, not to mention that little thing called personal fulfillment. We can work with people wherever they are, across the entire spectrum of needs. Can a job center do that? People know where we are; do they know where the job center is?”

The C2C program will address a clear need—about 66 million Americans have no computer skills, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in the C2C announcement—but why create a new network of training centers, when libraries could invest that money to build up their already-established training programs?

For example, in a city of 45,000, PFLA already serves between 1,500 and 2,000 students per year, and Barry said that it could help even more, if the library had more funding.

By contrast, C2C is “creating, essentially, a whole new layer of service providers,” Barry said. “Why couldn’t libraries be that service provider? Libraries want to move in that direction, but one thing that’s holding them back is that they don’t have teachers on staff.”

The result is that most libraries generally offer a variety of classes or courses to help patrons learn to use computers or specific software packages, he noted. But, those classes might not address all of a student’s adult education needs, and they are likely to conflict with the schedules of many patrons.

The strength of the PFLA model, Barry said, “is the fact that it’s so flexible. And it’s one-on-one, which is a typical library model for service, but it goes beyond that initial session, and involves instruction beyond that point.”

Funding for PFLA fluctuates, but the budget averages $100,000 annually, with almost all of those funds going directly to salary and benefits for the 2.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) teaching positions. One-third of revenue is drawn from local funds, one-third from federal Community Development Block Grants, and one third from local private sector donations.

For other libraries, another potential source of funding for a digital literacy program might be the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which uses federal monies for state and local workforce education and training programs. It is up for renewal this year, and groups including the American Library Association had been hoping for the passage of the Workforce Investment through Local Libraries (WILL) Act.

The WILL Act (H.R. 1616) would require state and local workforce investment boards using WIA funds to include representatives from libraries, and for states to integrate the training and literacy services available at public libraries into workforce investment plans, but the bill has been in committee since April 2011.

A Republican-sponsored package of amendments, the Workforce Investment Improvement Act of 2012 (H.R. 4297), passed committee in June, and is more likely to come to a vote. That bill does authorize public libraries as “one-stop partners” for employment, training, and literacy services, and it contains provisions that would require states to ensure that their plans for WIA money include descriptions of how programs will coordinate with existing literacy, employment, and training services carried out by non-profit groups, including libraries. But an amendment that would have specifically designated library employment resource centers as targets for WIA funding was defeated.

And groups including ALA, Adult Education and Literacy, the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, the National Coalition for Literacy, and the National Council for Family Literacy have written letters to congress expressing concerns about portions of H.R. 4297, in part arguing that making for-profit companies eligible for funding could increase costs and threaten training quality, and that allowing states to consolidate funding streams into unified plans could result in funding being slashed for programs directed at adults with low levels of literacy.

Regardless, with many libraries transitioning from being collection-driven organizations to service-driven organizations, Barry believes that the PFLA model could be an excellent fit for the computer training needs of other communities as well.

“We are far from ‘nirvana’ with this program,” he later added. “It would be ideal if we had a teacher in the lab all seven days/63 hours that the library is open. Even though we are flexible and can schedule sessions with students on evenings/weekends, drop-in hours are five days a week, Monday through Friday, 10-6. If funding were to increase, our first priority would be to expand those drop-in hours to approach the ideal. Still, even with its limitations, I think this is a good service model for other libraries to consider.”

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Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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