Every Tuesday and Thursday, the Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative (RIFLI) holds computer classes for adult ELL students. The classes are the result 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 full of students like Argelia, an immigrant 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.”

Why Technology?

Unfortunately, a wide gap exists between the number of under-skilled Rhode Islanders and the number of adult education openings available throughout the state. There are over 100,000 Rhode Islanders who lack a high school credential and/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.

Faced with these numbers, agencies like RIFLI rethought how they do business, creating a noteworthy model based on leveraging technology for access to learning anytime, anywhere.

Awareness

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.

Assessment

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 students’ digital literacy levels.

In one class, you might have someone like Nilson, who has some experience with computers, next to a student from Laos who has 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 basics of computer use, working in Microsoft Excel and Word, and using social media. 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.

Access

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 critical role for them.

Building off of a lending model used by two of the libraries that host its classes, RIFLI began a program in January 2015 for learners to borrow tablets to take home. With these tablets, they can practice what they’ve learned in class and get more prepared for work that requires digital literacy skills.

But lending tablets is only part of the access puzzle. Without an affordable data plan, a tablet has limited usefulness.

As a result, Tashjian is building a partnership with Mobile Beacon, a non-profit whose mission is to help underserved individuals get affordable data plans and hot spots in their homes. Mobile Beacon recently started a program with the New York Public Library System, and Tashjian hopes to bring a similar program to Rhode Island.

Technology Provides Opportunity

Awareness, assessment, and access: these are the three things RIFLI has in mind at all times. Their hope is that by focusing on these areas, they will help 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.”


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