“Libraries are safe places. That’s why I come here to learn,” says Christine, a student at one of Chicago Public Library’s (CPL) Learning Circles. A shy, 50-something native to Chicago, she is somewhat new to taking classes at the library, and yet she is proof that CPL’s approach to adult education — using technology as a gateway to academic skills — can be successful with under-skilled adults. When we met Christine, she was taking a class to improve her writing skills; she came to that class after taking a digital skills class that CPL, a new member of the Beacon community, offered earlier in the summer.

The leadership at CPL believes Christine’s trajectory is not unusual. Across its 80 branches citywide, CPL is putting an emphasis on reaching adults who lack basic digital literacy skills with their Digital Skills Initiative.

According to Andrea Saenz, CPL’s First Deputy Commissioner, “Basic digital skills are not just something to be done in addition to teaching academic skills.” Instead, she says, “they are the gateway to all kinds of learning.” By taking a long hard look at the library as an institution that serves all of Chicago, the leadership at CPL wanted their branches to be gateways in their own right — gateways to digital skills — a first step along an education and career pathway for adult learners.

Being part of that gateway means providing convenient, significant access to technology to a population who typically lacks it. Through surveys with patrons and its librarians, CPL found that many of the people coming to the library were like Christine: adults struggling to be successful in a digital world. These adults were learners who lacked access to computers or the Internet at home, but needed to get online to look for work and to find resources for their families. Often, these adults also needed help with basic academic skills.

With this in mind, CPL leadership did more than just provide 3,000 public access computers across all its branches. It began working with local colleges, workforce development agencies, and other community organizations to provide quality digital learning opportunities. The result: among the many other roles CPL plays in Chicago, the library is quickly becoming a kind of community school for basic computer skills.

To do this, the leadership at CPL knew their approach had to be multi-faceted, combining access to technology with a human touch. CPL’s CyberNavigator program trains mentors from the community to be digital skills coaches, helping patrons understand all facets of digital literacy — from turning on the computer and operating a mouse, to sending emails and doing Google searches. CPL has found this program demystifies technology, which in turn helps patrons incorporate technology into their daily lives. Perhaps even more importantly, as was the case with Christine, this exposure to technology is encouraging students to work on their academic skills as well.

Because of this, CPL places a lot of emphasis on the quality of the technology it puts in front of students. After an exhaustive examination of existing product availability, CPL identified three digital literacy products to pilot with students, but none were right for their needs. Instead of making do with what they could find, CPL approached the developers behind Digital Learn and asked if they would be open to modifying the existing product. Because CPL offered a large number of beta testers in the way of their students, the developers agreed. Currently, the product is still in development, but the hope is that by CPL working closely with the developer, Digital Learn will better serve CPL’s patrons as well as Digital Learn’s future customers.

In addition to the work they are doing with Digital Learn, CPL has also been creating makerspaces, which give learners a hands-on experience with 3-D printers and design programs. Though one might think that this kind of technology is for more advanced learners only, the program has already seen that this is not the case.

“We get learners from all different levels,” said Tommy Stanton, an outreach navigator with CPL’s Maker Lab Program. “A lot of times, adults hear about technology, but they think it isn’t for them. The Maker Lab allows adults to get exposed to tech so they don’t feel left behind.”

As a result of the popularity of this program, CPL has been setting up mobile makerspaces in many of their branches to expose adult learners in Chicago to technology that not only is interesting but that also could provide skills for a 21st century workplace.

As impressive and innovative as CPL’s work around technology and under-served adults is, their work is rooted in a common sense approach to education. They first listened to their end users, and then came up with solutions that met students’ needs in a way that suited their strengths as an organization.

For adult learners like Christine, CPL is providing something that no other organization in Chicago is offering at such a large scale: the first step toward gaining digital skills that are at the core of learning in a digital world.

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