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Adult New Computer Users: A Glimpse into the Learner Path

February 4, 2015

By Gloria Jacobs, Jill Castek, Andrew Pizzolato, Elizabeth Withers, and Kimberly Pendell
Literacy, Language & Technology Research Group
Portland State University

Over the past three years, with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Literacy, Language, and Technology Research group at Portland State has been investigating the experiences of new-to-computer adult users acquiring digital literacy within self-paced, tutor-facilitated learning environments.  The learners were participating in programs funded by the Broadband Technology Opportunities Project located in multiple sites across the United States. This project was specifically focused on better understanding the adults’ learning processes.

Learn more about the Tutor-Facilitated Digital Literacy in Hard-to-Serve Populations project in a free webinar on March 5 from 10 - 11 a.m. PST. Click here to register.

After analyzing the transcripts from learners and tutors, we found that the successful learner moves along a predictable learning path. Within this path, there are three distinct phases. The Entry phase is driven by the learners’ life goals, how they were recruited, and what motivates them. Throughout the Program Interaction phase, the learners’ motivation and practice (in tandem with tutor support, the Learner Web, and the lab environment) all work towards completion of learning goals. These elements interact to propel successful learners forward in their learning. Often, learners work independently and at their own pace. During this time, they experience a growing sense of confidence and self-efficacy. When learners are working within the program, they move through periods of Discovery and Goal Setting, uncovering new content and skills that prompt them to reassess their understanding of what is possible in the digital world. As learners’ understanding, skills, and goals broaden, they trace a growing orbit through digital spaces.

At times, learners may experience Roadblocks in their learning. For successful learners, roadblocks can be overcome with support from tutors, other learners, family and friends, along with their growing sense of confidence and self-efficacy. When learners approach roadblocks and are experiencing frustration, the tutors step in to provide support as needed. For example, Marjory, an 80-year-old participant, described how she gained confidence to solve problems on her computer. She explained:

"You can’t go to the telephone and just ask anybody, because they have to see what kind [of computer] you’ve got. Even the lab coordinator would have to sit down, or her helper that she had, they’d have to sit down and try a few things first and then they’d come up with it. And the teenage mentor I had, he did that too. He said, “I don’t have one like that, I’ll have to see what I can find.” And he’d usually find it, but it wouldn’t be like he’d have it right at the tip of his tongue. So I decided if they have to look for stuff, why can’t I look for stuff? So I do."

After learners leave the program, they continue moving through the Discovery and Goal Setting process with support from family, friends, and community resources (such as the library or community based organizations). Learners also experience Impact and Skills Integration, where they rely on the self-confidence gained through the learning process. They learn to find help on their own through resources such as Google, tutorials, help menus, or by experimentation/trial and error.

We are continuing to analyze and explore our data to better understand how programs are designed and implemented in libraries, adult education, community based organizations, and other settings. We’re also interested in examining how tutors work to support adult learners as they acquire digital literacy skills. What has become clear, though, is that learners who stick with the program experience a transformation in their lives. Senior citizens have told us how getting on computers and the Internet has decreased their isolation and has allowed them to stay economically viable through self-employment. An incarcerated individual who took part in digital literacy learning activities, as part of a re-entry program, shared with us how being a mentor in the program allowed him to discover that he enjoyed, and was good at, helping others. Displaced workers have expressed that they now feel more prepared to re-enter the job market, and parents talked about how learning computers and the Internet now allows them to better understand the world of their children.

We look forward to sharing additional findings from this project with you on our project dissemination website. We’ll also be presenting a paper at the Knowledge, Technology, and Society Conference in Berkeley, CA on Monday, Feb. 23, and sharing research findings at the COABE conference in Denver from Monday, April 20 to Friday, April 24.

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