Jason Pinshower, Information Services Librarian/Technology Trainer at Fox River Valley Public Library District teaches a class using DigitalLearn.org.

Recipient: Public Library Association

Grant: Laura Bush 21st Century Librarians Program

Pictured: Jason Pinshower, Information Services Librarian/Technology Trainer at Fox River Valley Public Library District teaches a class using DigitalLearn.org.

Project Contact:
Jamie Hollier
Project Manager


“Everyone deserves the opportunity to connect with the world around them—and this world is increasingly reliant on digital communication and technology. By providing access to tools and training, public libraries assist in reducing the digital divide in our nation. The DigitalLearn.org platform makes the delivery of this service and the accessibility of digital literacy possible.”

-- Larry Neal, President, Public Library Association (PLA) and Director,
Clinton-Macomb (Mich.) Public Library

In 2012, Pew Research released a survey that found more than 1 in 5 people did not use the Internet. According to Jamie Hollier of consulting firm Anneal, Inc., who the Public Library Association (PLA) contracted to manage the project, as society continues to move online, addressing the needs of the population segment being left out of the digital revolution becomes increasingly important. And while public libraries, along with nonprofits and other community organizations are on the front lines of digital literacy and inclusion efforts nationwide, many of these organizations can’t meet the demand they are seeing for assistance. These were major motivators for PLA to create DigitalLearn.org.

“We needed to a find way to help users develop the skills to become engaged online citizens, and be part of the online community,” said Hollier. “People learn in different ways—self-directed online classes, in-person, through conversations with others. Different approaches are needed to address different barriers.”

A Tool to Empower Learners

DigitalLearn.org was funded by a grant from IMLS as a tool to support organizations that are increasing digital literacy, with an evolving collection of training resources for those who teach and support digital learners. Now, for example, a librarian teaching a class on Instagram for the first time doesn’t have to create teaching tutorials from scratch.

This online hub, managed by PLA, provides access to a community of practice where trainers can share resources and connect with others in the field about insights and best practices. It was created in partnership with the American Library Association (ALA) Office of Information Technology and Policy, the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA), and with input from representatives of a diverse array of organizations.

During the first phase of the project, PLA and digital literacy stakeholders sketched out the necessary site structure and taxonomy to determine the best technology to meet digital trainer needs. Concurrently, the group identified, reviewed, developed, and organized existing training resources for patron self-serve use in courses using multiple forms of learning through visual, audio, and interactive elements. Each course is accompanied by PDF handouts. After completing a class, users can print out a personalized certificate of completion.

After the site was built, PLA and ALA promoted it to partners through their publications, social media, and other channels, and held sessions at conferences introducing DigitalLearn.org to attendees. Hollier also engaged with the Association for Rural & Small Libraries, which represents many libraries with small staffs and limited resources to help patrons get online.

“DigitalLearn.org helps libraries meet a demand they may not have had the resources to meet on their own,” said Hollier. “Sharing insights from the community of practice saves them time, allows trainers to teach new classes, and helps them feel less alone.”

Supporting Trainers

The working group expected about 10,000 unique visitors to the site and 1,000 class completions in DigitalLearn.org’s first year. The demand far exceeded these estimates, with 36,667 visitors and 5,914 class completions in the first year. Hollier has also heard from numerous appreciative library staff users who have found DigitalLearn.org’s resources essential:

“I first heard about DigitalLearn.org at the 2013 ALA conference. I had just started my first full-time job as an Instruction and Technology Librarian,” said Jason Pinshower of Fox River Valley Public Library District in Illinois. “DigitalLearn.org was great because it gave me instant access to a network of other trainers who had much more experience than I did at the time.”

“Since that time almost 2 years ago, I've had several trainers and librarians from around the country (who discovered me through DigitalLearn.org) reach out to me for advice and course materials,” Pinshower continued.

Another user of the website, Judy Sparzo, Branch Children's Librarian at Fairfield Woods Branch Library in Virginia, emphasizes that technology training needs are growing among patrons and it can be challenging for library staff to keep up with the demand—much less keep current on emerging technologies. “All libraries, regardless of size or funding, can benefit from the tech expertise of others without devoting already limited time and energy to tech class exploration, design and delivery,” she said. “DigitalLearn.org, through e-newsletters and discussion threads, helps to bridge that gap.”

Building Digital Foundations

The diversity of users surprised the working group. Schools started using DigitalLearn.org to help educate parents who didn’t have Internet skills. Utah’s Governor's Office of Economic Development used DigitalLearn.org to help entrepreneurs develop digital expertise and assist people in job searches.

Shane Southwick, Alaska State Library program manager, said the library decided to give all librarians in the state a detailed training through DigitalLearn.org. This was based on the amount of positive feedback from rural library IT aides who were required to complete DigitalLearn.org courses under a hiring prerequisite. Southwick also invited Hollier to join four video conference sessions with librarians and the annual Alaska Library Conference to talk about the website.

Popular discussion threads on the website, where trainers share tips and ask questions, have become resources in their own right. Traffic to a thread posted two years ago discussing process and issues surrounding email setup continues to be high. Users reference the discussion to talk through phone verification issues and share ideas to solve roadblocks.

PLA continues to have conversations and planning sessions with other organizations about possible collaborations to promote Internet literacy in rural locations and nationally. Code for America used DigitalLearn.org as a template for its new Biz Friendly app promoting digital literacy among small business owners, and reached out to PLA to discuss possible partnerships to boost civic online engagement.

The U.S. Department of Education also created a webinar using the site, in collaboration with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The session aimed to train people in government housing on basic online skills.

Perhaps most importantly, end users in communities continue to develop invaluable new skills with the help of DigitalLearn.org’s resources. Survey respondents praised DigitalLearn.org’s self-guided pace, ease for beginners, and helpfulness as a refresher for experienced users—plus “great interaction,” and “awesome graphics.”

DigitalLearn.org’s content continues to grow in conjunction with the need. Spanish classes have recently been added and a Spanish version of the site will be live in early 2015. Beyond digital skills, the working group views DigitalLearn.org as a champion for lifelong learning, and a place to add higher-level content as audience skill levels rise.

This falls in line with feedback from users. Despite owning computers for years, some users hadn’t known how to use any computer programs. But now, they are hungry for more education. They have online skills and confidence, and are recommending the site to others. As one respondent put it, DigitalLearn.org helped to build “my road to make my dreams come true.”