Monday, January 18, 2010

The digital literacy divide

My mother is a very intelligent woman.
I don't say that just because she is my mother, you understand, but because she is. She has an intense sense of wonder, curiosity, and playful optimism about the world. She loves her library. She loves books. She loves learning.

But - mea culpa - she stands on the other side of the digital divide from me and my sister (and most of America, these days).
My mom was a registered nurse. She'd gone to nursing school back in the day when that was how you became a nurse. She was very good at what she did. She was one of the first nurses to be trained in recovery care for angioplasty patients (a couple of decades ago, angioplasty was a fairly new procedure).

She retired as early as she could, however. Partly because she was driven out by technology - by computers, to be more precise. At that point, the field of nursing had changed so much that despite her expertise, she would've had to return to a traditional college program and get a bachelor's degree (as she put it, learn to take a temperature after 20 plus years of nursing) just to get ahead at the hospital. But that was ok, because she'd never really wanted to be a manager. But when the computers came, and the workflow changed accordingly, it was yet another pressure on her. From what she tells me, I gather that with repeated training and repetition of the procedures, she was able to learn how to write up her lab slips on the computer. That was in an age before email was a part of the workflow for most people, so I suspect it was a terminal/mainframe setup, in which she learned (as she puts it) "which buttons to press". Then she retired. Yes, there were other reasons, but the rate of technological change and the rise of computers in the workplace were important factors.

After she retired, email and the web arose as key elements of the workplace, but by then, she'd had no reason to learn how to work with those technologies. For years now, my sister and I (both librarians) have served as "her internet". At last year's Web2.0 Expo in New York, I listened to an anthropologist discuss how in rural India, those who are illiterate use those who are literate and computer-savvy to "be their internet". They'd dictate emails to a child, who would type them in and send them off, then read the replies aloud for them. Though my mom is quite literate in terms of reading, this description sounded eerily similar to what my sister and I had done for my mom.

My mom straight up wasn't interested in computer literacy, so my sister and I had let it go. She'd laughingly refer to herself as a "dinosaur" or protest, why do I need to know how to do that? I'll just write a letter (even buying herself a surprisingly inexpensive electric typewriter at a tag sale to make letter writing quicker). Briefly, I'd imagined teaching her how to use email and the web. But when I thought about the cost of getting her a computer and internet connection, especially one that would fit into her snowbird lifestyle (this was in the days before NetBooks and reasonably-priced laptops), plus the pain of trying to explain it all to her and support her without getting inappropriately snippy (since my daily help desk battles had already left me a bit burnt out on supporting such technology), it just didn't seem worth it to me. I think it was the same for my sister. She had it worse than me, after all. She wasn't a systems librarian, but a reference librarian, already somewhat overwhelmed by the challenges of guiding patrons through the vicissitudes of technology all day long. So when my mom needed information on her own medical conditions, my sister & I just did the research for her and printed it out. She understood what the articles meant and gave us enough information to conduct meaningful searches for her, so it all worked out.

Last night, I called my mom to see how she was doing. It turned out that she's decided that she really needs to learn use the computer and to figure out email. For all of her social groups these days, they ask for her email address and it's gotten to the point where she's missing out on important information by avoiding this whole internet thing. (And I think she's a bit embarrassed that she sees others in her generation and even older than her who understand how to use email and the web.)

In addition, she's taking an adult education course in anthropology right now - on sub-saharan africa! She loves the course and the professor, but the additional readings she wants to review are all online. I felt a pang of guilt as I listened to her and realized that - once again - my mom was missing out because of her lack of basic internet literacy. And here I work on the web every day. I advocate for librarians to embrace Web2.0. I don't spend much time thinking about the many otherwise competent adults out there who need help with these basic skills.

When my sister and brother-in-law spent the holidays with her, they brought her down to her local public library and got her hooked up with a Yahoo email account. (My mom's description was something like "they told me which buttons to push".) She'd tried to send my sister an email, which she told me had never made it through. She had no idea which buttons she'd hit. or how she'd done what she'd done (or not done). She hadn't wanted to "interrupt" the reference librarian, whom she described as being very busy, but eventually, she'd had to in order to check her email. She said it took her almost an hour (which is the limit on public computer use at her library), but she'd successfully managed to send an email to my sister. Unfortunately, she couldn't understand what everything meant or how to repeat the proces the next time she went to the library. Moreover, she has to sign up for a computer ahead of time, which poses yet one more barrier to her - one more process to learn - one more frustration to face.

She said that she didn't want to keep "bothering" the librarians (yes, she may be extra sensitive to this because my sister is a public services librarian herself).
My mother and I commiserated about the overworked, underpaid, much needed role of public librarians as my mother recounted her tale. So none of this is to cast aspersions on her local library (which she adores) or her librarians (whom she holds in the highest regard).
Still, think of how difficult it must be to be in my mother's position, though -- to feel like you can't figure out what every one else seems to have no problems with, to have to ask someone for help to do something that is basic to 21st-century life.
I thought that her local public library might've offered basic computer classes, but she said that when she asked the librarian about a basic computer class she was told that the library had been trying to put together a course on helping people use their laptops. But this doesn't help someone like my mother, who isn't there yet. My mother asked me where she might be able to find a class that she could take that would help her.

So, does anyone in the Clearwater, Florida area know of any place someone like my mom can learn the basics of getting comfortable with a computer, email, and the web?

More importantly - in an era when the public is questioning the very need for libraries, why aren't libraries at the forefront of the digital literacy issue. Why don't we develop a nationwide digital literacy initiative? It could include a preset curriculum that even the smallest public libraries could use to get people online.
This seems like a no-brainer. Maybe it's already out there and (as so often happens with great library programs) under-publicized? If so, PLEASE CORRECT ME!
If not, consider this a call to action.

1 comment:

Plone Glenn said...

Your story reminds me of this time when I took my mother out to lunch. Like your mother, she also was computer phobic and a professional nurse.

We were sitting at the table and I was encouraging her to take some computer courses at the senior center. Through sighs of frustration, she confided that she was just too old to learn any new tricks.

That was when the senior lady sitting at the next table turned around and tried to give my mother some support and encouragement.

The digital divide continues to get larger. Email and word processing are no longer enough. There are now nine more skills to acquire in order to flourish in today's social web.