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Advancing Digital Literacy in Houghton County, Michigan

For those new to technology, the Computer Help for Adults program at Portage Lake District Library is unlocking the unknown.  Residents come from all over Houghton County, MI to work one-on-one with students at Michigan Technological University (MTU) in Houghton, MI to learn about new devices.  The Computer Help for Adults program is one of many initiatives in Houghton County that has awarded them status as a Connected certified community.  Houghton County celebrates their achievement in June, becoming the second Connected certified community in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula.

Every Friday morning at the library, students at MTU become instructors and help participants navigate a variety of devices and applications.  Instructors include both undergraduates and graduate-level students in Computer Science and technology-oriented Humanities majors.  While the students have grown up immersed in the Information Age, to many of the participants of the program, everything is brand new.

“For people being presented with technology for the first time, it is a tremendous shock and there’s a lot to learn,” said Charles Wallace, associate professor of Computer Science at MTU and faculty organizer of the program.  “Digital literacy is our number one priority.”  While students help participants use their devices effectively, they also learn about the user experience and the importance of intuitive design.  Getting an outside perspective from those unfamiliar with technology, Wallace explains, shows them the kind of obstacles they will face as designers and programmers.

Technology questions span across computers,  Kindles, iPads, Android tablets, and even smartphones.  Some are unsure how to use newly acquired devices while others struggle with malware or viruses.  Specific questions about software or online applications also arise, including everything from organizing a budget on Microsoft Excel, to sharing photos through the cloud, to finding friends on Facebook.  MTU students give participants a one-on-one tour of the device if needed, point out software to guard against malware, and show users how to use choice applications online.

“It’s important because it lets people empower themselves to go forth, explore, and acquire new material,” said Shawn Leche, Director of the Portage Lake District Library.  “It gives them the tools, not just to work on one thing, but they can see how everything comes together.”  Some attend to get answers for specific problems, while others attend every week to learn more.  Regardless, enthusiasm is always present on both sides.  “We have to give credit to the Michigan Technology University students that donate their time every week. They’re enthusiastic, they enjoy doing it, and they make it a success.”

Starting in the summer, Wallace and the student volunteers plan to construct a model for the program to share with other communities so they may enact their own programs. “We also want to use the lessons that we’ve learned about the obstacles that people are facing as a springboard for our research, to design better websites and better software that is more welcoming to new people,” said Wallace.

To learn more about broadband initiatives expanding adoption and use across the country, visit Connected Community Engagement Program website.