Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, the Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative (RIFLI), one of Digital Promise’s Beacon Project communities, holds computer classes for adult English as a Second Language (ESL) students. The classes are a product of RIFLI’s plan to create a 1:1 classroom computing model that, according to RIFLI’s Director Karisa Tashjian, “blurs the lines between language/content learning and using technology.”
The classes are popular and full of students like Argelia, an immigrant in her 40s from Guatemala who knew she needed English, but was surprised to find out her job as a nursing assistant equally required her to be digitally literate. Argelia is not alone. Other students in the program have similar experiences.
Margarita, a student from Chile, said she never thought to touch a computer before coming to RIFLI, in large part because she didn’t know what a computer could do for her. “I thought it was all for people who could talk English.”
Unfortunately, there is a wide gap between the number of under-skilled Rhode Islanders and the number of adult education openings available through the state. There are over 100,000 individuals of working age in Rhode Island who lack a high school credential or who speak little to no English; out of those, only 6,000 are being served by the system, according to Jill Holloway, the Director of the Rhode Island Adult Education Professional Development Center, the agency that trains adult education teachers in the state.
Faced with these numbers, agencies like RIFLI are rethinking how they do business, creating a noteworthy model based in building up technology and community partnerships.
Even if there were enough adult education services to help each person, some adults are unaware of which skills they need. Nilson, a participant in the program and a former educator in his native Brazil, put it simply: “How can you know you have to learn if you don’t know what’s there to learn?”
To help increase digital literacy awareness in underserved communities, Broadband Rhode Island, a partner with RIFLI, created a curriculum in 2011 for adult education teachers to promote digital literacy among adult learners. RIFLI is also working to increase awareness about the importance of being connected through a partnership with Rhode Island’s public library system.
RIFLI created a Learning Lounge in the main Providence branch that is free of charge for any patron who wants to go online to get help with their education or employment needs. The lounge is staffed with a teacher who can help students with anything from applying for public assistance (which in Rhode Island must be done online) to job searching. But, the real purpose of the lounge is to get people connected and help them see the purpose of doing so.
RIFLI has historically been an ESL program and because it serves 225 students a year, it can separate ESL students by level. This is not the case when assessing its students’ digital literacy levels.
In one class, you might have someone like Nilson, who was an educator and has some experience with computers, sitting next to a student from Laos who had very little formal education. Tashjian and her staff offer mixed-level classes for now, but the educators must spend more time assessing the needs their students have as they walk in the door.
To address these different learning levels, RIFLI uses the Northstar Digital Literacy assessment exam as the basis for a curriculum that teaches how to use a computer to using Microsoft Excel and Word as well as social media, specifically Facebook. At the end of each course, RIFLI staff award digital badges to the students. RIFLI hopes employers will accept those credentials the way they currently accept a certificate from a community or vocational college.
RIFLI offers 25 classes in 12 locations, five days a week, to try to reach individuals not served by the system. Still, with funding for adult education diminishing, there is no way that RIFLI can be everywhere it needs to be – and this is where, again, technology has played a role for them.
Building off of a lending model used by two of the libraries that host its classes, RIFLI is planning a pilot program for January 2015 in which digital literacy students can borrow tablets and take them home. From there, they can practice what they’ve learned in class and get more prepared for work that requires digital literacy skills.
But lending the tablets is only part of the access puzzle. Without an affordable data plan, a tablet has limited usefulness. As a result, Ms. Tashjian is building a partnership with Mobile Beacon, a non-profit organization based in Providence whose purpose is to help underserved individuals in programs like RIFLI get affordable data plans and hot spots in their homes. Mobile Beacon recently started a program with the New York Public Library System to do that with its patrons, and Tashjian hopes to bring a similar program to Rhode Island.
Awareness, assessment, and access: these are the three things that RIFLI have in mind at all times. Their hope is that by doing so, they will help some of those 94,000 Rhode Islanders who are underserved, under-skilled, and under-credentialed. “That is what keeps us going over here,” Tashjian told me. “And it’s what keeps me up late most nights of the week.”