Bridging the Digital Divide One DigitalLearn Lesson at a Time

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COVID-19 has shed a spotlight on the digital divide across Chicago. The Library and digital literacy expert, Elizabeth Romero, have been bridging that gap since 2014. 

When shelter-in-place took effect in March, millions of Chicagoans had to rely on technology more than we ever did before. In a matter of days, we found ourselves getting up to speed with different apps and tools we had no idea even existed. We scrambled to configure our cloud storage as we transition to working from home. We spent hours figuring out how to operate Zoom (or Teams or Google Hangouts or Skype) for official meetings and informal get-togethers. We became frustrated as we support our children in remote learning lessons. Some of us have hesitantly set up our social media to keep in touch with our loved ones. 

As Chicagoans continue to navigate the digital landscape more extensively, we quickly realize that technology can be daunting. For many, this digital anxiety has existed long before COVID-19.

“At 60 years old, I’m terrified of the computer. I have a laptop that I refused to touch for years because I was so scared that I’ll break it,” said Jackie, a library patron.

So, how do you conquer digital anxiety? Elizabeth, DigitalLearn’s curriculum designer shares some tips.

Acknowledge the emotional side of technology

“Technology can be overwhelming, especially if you have limited experiences in using it. That’s why we devoted the first DigitalLearn lesson to reassuring people that it’s okay─to be afraid, to ask, to not know things,” Elizabeth explained. True enough, the first 15 minutes of the course covers feelings of anxiety, fear, even shame.  

“We want to address these issues head-on and let them know that these feelings are valid, and more importantly, they are normal.”

Make Technology Personal

DigitalLearn is the Library’s adult digital literacy virtual platform. Lessons are categorized into themes like the basics, health resources, job search, productivity, and social media. Lessons come in the form of short video courses that range from 5 to 15 minutes long. Learners are free to study a topic they need right now.

This learn-on-demand approach is by design.

“When the Library was developing the curriculum for DigitalLearn, one of our major considerations was practicality. How can we teach patrons the digital competency to use technology to make their lives better?”, Elizabeth shares.

“You need to learn tech because you have a problem you need to solve. You need to learn Word so you can type a resume. You need to learn Excel so you can manage the household budget. You need to learn how to use an email so you can communicate more effectively.”

DigitalLearn created specific courses that will empower patrons to navigate their everyday lives a little better. “We position technology as a life skill,” Elizabeth continues.

To ensure that the program responds to the community’s evolving needs, the Library continuously conducts an extensive on-ground assessment, inviting individuals and organizations from different ages, genders, ethnicities & races, income statuses, and neighborhoods. “Research is a critical aspect of DigitalLearn because we want to create relevant and helpful courses to as many patrons as possible,” Elizabeth explains.

Learn by doing 

The videos are strategically divided into three: Direct instruction, demonstration, and application. “We walk you through the skill you need to learn step by step first, and then we allow time for you to do hands-on activities,” Elizabeth says. “The team has spent a lot of time developing characters patrons can relate to and setting up situations to simulate real-life experiences. This way, we get to reinforce lessons through repeated practice,” she beams.

“The courses are incredibly relatable. After watching the video about job application, I feel like if the Michelle, the character of the story, was able to type, upload her resume, and get a job, I can too!”, Claudia, a Library patron, and an avid Chicago DigitalLearn user.

Turning a Barrier into a Tool 

Since its launch in 2014, 25,000 people have enjoyed DigitalLearn, with 95% regularly returning to learn more. As the city continues to experience the effects of COVID-19, more Chicagoans are using the platform to turn digital barriers into tools thanks to Chicago Public Library.

 “Apply online─for people with limited access and experience with computers, hearing these words meant their path to employment became more challenging. But thanks to Chicago DigitalLearn, I’m gaining confidence in using technology to look for job opportunities and in other areas in my life.” – Patron 

Digital literacy is more critical than ever. Chicago Public Library is at the forefront, empowering Chicagoans across the city to navigate the digital world–from setting up an email to applying online to learning how to use Word or Excel. Help bridge the digital divide when you support DigitalLearn

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Chicago Public Library Foundation