Lake City organization is a quick study in teaching digital literacy to adults

Learning digital literacy skills at Literacy Source

Story by Damme Getachew

For hundreds of adults in the Seattle area looking to expand their education, Literacy Source is a crucial first step.

At their Learning Center in Lake City, students experience a broad range of classes intended to build their language and literacy skills.

As Literacy Source Executive Director Lynn Livesley explains, the organization’s strength is not only in their small class sizes — with a maximum of 15 students per class — but also in the way they keep their content accessible.

“Adults walk with their feet,” she says, “they don’t have to be here, they choose to be…the classes have to be relevant and respectful of their time.”

Throughout a typical week, Literacy Source offers adult basic education (ABE), English as a Second Language (ESL), GED prep, math, citizenship test prep, and their new Online learning courses (made possible through a City of Seattle Technology Matching Fund grant) at convenient times.

About 120 active volunteers facilitate in the classroom or work one-on-one with students every day. Volunteer tutor Wendy Mullen meets with her student for 90 minutes, twice per week.

Classes and tutoring revolve around each student’s individual goals. Each student is supported by an assigned instructional advisor, who takes care to understand why learners are there and where they want to go. They check-in with their students across six-week terms. No two classes are alike because they are tailored to a cohort’s needs and ambitions.

Tess Griswold, an ABE instructional advisor says this is exactly why they are successful — a culturally responsive curriculum and a classroom built around mutually agreed upon rules is the norm.

“It’s not prescribed, it’s not scripted, it’s something that really comes from them and where they are at,” she says. “We intentionally meet them at their level.”

Yumiko, a student in a level four ESL class, moved to Seattle from California where she worked as a dental assistant at a Japanese-speaking facility. She’s at Literacy Source because she wants to improve her English-speaking skills so that she can eventually work as a dental assistant anywhere. But for now, learning how to use a computer is helping her do better at her current job.

“Because of our size and the fact we are not within a big institutional structure, we can be very nimble, flexible, and intentional about creating opportunities for the people we are working with,” Livesley explains.

In 21st century America, this includes increasing digital literacy for low-income adults.

Literacy Source has created a center-wide Digital Literacy curriculum which promotes technology use in some form in every single class, both in their Learning Center and in off-site programming. Focus areas include basic internet functionality, email, Google Docs, Google Maps, and Canvas (a learning management system used in higher education).

Specific objectives are outlined across their Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer terms with increasing complexity as time goes on.

“The majority of our students want to know how to use a computer,” says Instructional Director Cat Howell, “For some, it is the first time they’ve even touched one, so we start from the beginning.”

Workforce Coordinator and Instructional Advisor Janet Arbogast says that a lot of assumptions are often made when it comes to instructing adults about digital literacy.

“Jobs that have previously been non-technological are starting to transition,” she explains. As tasks become more automated, workers are expected to catch on to new programs and databases quickly.

But as Arbogast points out, it can be very difficult if digital training is not done in the right way. That’s why Literacy Source steps in to provide in-depth pre-training before new systems go live, and partners with other organizations to host classes on-site.  Recently, they conducted a 10-week long training at NW Hospital.

“Showing workers something once and assuming they will get it just doesn’t work,” Arbogast continues. “As NW Hospital workers got the hang of the new program, they were able to phase out of the class.”

The unique strategies used by Literacy Source are meant to ensure that digital literacy continues long after students exit the classroom, in ways that both improve job performance and will fundamentally change a student’s life.

“Change happens with education,” Livesley affirms. “Education is the starting point for any individual.”

In 2016 the City of Seattle awarded 10 community organizations a total of $320,000 in Technology Matching Funds (TMF). This funding will assist more than 2,500 residents in historically underserved or underrepresented communities who lack the necessary technology access and essential digital skills to thrive in the 21st century.