The fight for adult literacy has gone digital - Philly


May 1, 2015 7:29 am

The fight for adult literacy has gone digital

In Pennsylvania, you can't take the GED test without using a computer. Here's how city departments, nonprofits and religious groups are adding digital literacy to their adult education efforts.
Adult learners at the Mercy Neighborhood computer center in Tioga-Nicetown.

Adult learners at the Mercy Neighborhood computer center in Tioga-Nicetown.

(Photo by Diana David)

Brian Isdell will be bringing an entire computer lab with him to Philadelphia’s outdoor events this summer. He hopes you’ll visit.

He’ll be driving the “Techmobile,” a large van that is made to contain eight computers or tablets with full WiFi access and one-on-one training. Launched three years ago and previously sidelined by technical challenges, the purpose of the van and its event visits is to provide the public with technology and internet access as well as training, while staying mobile.

The Techmobile is part of a larger KEYSPOT effort by the Free Library of Philadelphia and many other organizations in the city to bridge the digital divide between those who have easy access to technology, and those who don’t. It was the subject of an event during Philly Tech Week presented by Comcast, led by the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy. This is the adult answer to the many youth STEM learning initiatives, like TechGirlz and Coded by Kids.

The hope of these adult-focused efforts is to provide the leaders of low-income families, who frequently find themselves on the restrictive side of the digital divide, the chance to rise above the poverty line with adult digital literacy and education services. Consider that last year the state’s GED exam began to be only offered in digital format, requiring some computer literacy.

With a little more technical comfort, residents who may have suffered job loss due to a lack of experience in the rapidly changing technological world are hoped to be able to claim a position in the evolving economy.

In 2011, Mayor Michael Nutter reported that a staggering 550,000 adults in Philadelphia [PDF] do not have the literacy skills to apply for a job.


Families who cannot afford broadband internet access in their homes or a home computer have the opportunity to use new technologies to find employment, education and learn about internet affordability, along with the help of community centers.

Mercy Neighborhood Ministries of Philadelphia is located in the Tioga-Nicetown section of North Philadelphia, a neighborhood that has one of the highest poverty rates in the entire city at around 40 percent, according to a 2013 Pew study.

It was founded in 1997 by the Sisters of Mercy when the Archdiocese began closing down parishes and Catholic schools in 1993, said a representative. The only options for the nuns were to close their mission or to start somewhere else.

Sister Ann Provost, executive director of Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, said they built the faith-based nonprofit organization with a strategic plan of becoming a hub for families in the community. The services provided to the community were intended as responses to the various needs expressed directly from community residents.

“Each of our programs have been formed through needs that we have learned through the families that we serve,” Provost said. “We were here for a year when the families approached us and asked if we would consider a preschool. We’ve also done focus groups on how to care for the elderly in the neighborhood.”

Now that also includes basic computer literacy.

A prominent need in the neighborhood of Tioga-Nicetown was for adult education. With this component, Mercy Neighborhood Ministries moved toward workforce development after establishing a GED program. The center takes in students ranging from 25-75 years old.

The current GED test format was introduced in Pennsylvania as a paper-based test in January 2002 and was computer-based in 2012. It officially changed from paper to online format in January 2014.

Therefore, in order to prepare students for the test, Mercy Neighborhood Ministries’ has a computer lab for the course. It is open twice a week serving 55 students, most of whom are working toward their GED or improved literacy skills.

“Increasingly, more and more of our daily lives requires you to go online for setting up appointments, finding information on businesses and doing your taxes,” said Scott Pinkleman, a digital literacy innovation specialist for the Free Library’s Office of Innovation and Technology. “We’re trying to guide people through this online landscape where a lot of life is moving.”

Additionally, in order to provide the general public with regular digital access and instruction, Mercy Neighborhood Ministries and the Free Library partnered to make a small computer lab that is open during weekdays and hosts public events.

Osbia Jones, a digital resource specialist for the Free Library of Philadelphia, formerly worked at another public hotspot near the intersection of Broad Street and Susquehanna Avenue before the program was curtailed. He was then brought to Mercy Neighborhood Ministries to staff the public lab.

Although Jones works at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, he is a staff member from the Free Library, which Provost said she considered to be one of the greatest opportunities for the neighborhood since the center couldn’t afford a staff member on its own.

Jones said he has found that adult learners come into the center with open to learning new technologies.

“The more they are willing to challenge themselves, the more they’ll get out of technology,” Jones said. “It’s your efficacy in using it that will make all those things blossom for you. I encourage people not to have a linear thinking about how they use technology.”

Richard Tiller, a certified nursing assistant looking for a new job, said he graduated from the Cortiva Institute of Massage Therapy but was unable to take the state boards because of a “minor setback.” He met Jones through the hotspot on Broad and Susquehanna.

“There are a lot of single mothers and fathers who are looking for work and this is a stepping stone for them,” Tiller said. “I won’t let my setback stop me. I’m looking for a better position.”

Additional services at the center include child daycare, adult daycare and digital literacy education for all ages with a second, larger computer lab.

In 2003, Mercy became incorporated separately from the Sisters of Mercy after working in leased office spaces. The current building, which was once an empty warehouse with a copper pipe manufacturer being the last tenant of the building in the 1950s, has been open since 2009. Throughout its four-year-long stint of renovations, members of the surrounding community had an input on the design of the building, which resulted in it being one of the first green buildings in the city.

To make renovations possible and to maintain the building itself, the center receives funding not just from the government, but also from a wide array of donors: the William Penn Foundation, PHMC and The Reinvestment Fund, which paid for the construction of a new classroom. The revenue also comes from the charges enlisted for the programs the center offers.

Along with providing the access to technology, numerous local adult literacy coordinators said it is just as important to teach technology, especially to adults who were not raised when technology was as dominant in daily life.

In 2012, the city removed the distinction between traditional literacy — reading and writing — and digital literacy, telling Philly that the digital divide was more than an issue of accessibility, but of education.

To teach these newly-prioritized skills, educated tutors and volunteers were needed. The Mayor’s Commission on Literacy’s Tech Tutors initiated a program to acquire tech-savvy individuals to help educate the city’s adult learners.

Tech Tutors is a collaboration between the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy, the Mayor’s Office on Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service, the Freedom Rings Partnership and Drexel University.

Steven Waites, a general engineer for a government defense contractor, is also a volunteer tutor for Tech Tutors. He currently volunteers his time through an organization called myPLACE to tutor three students. Due to his commute to work, he said he can only manage to come to the computer labs once a week, but still assigns homework throughout the week for his students.

“I was looking for a way to contribute back to the city,” Waites said. “I took a class to become a tech tutor in 2013 and in October 2014 is when I saw a need for tech tutors from email blasts in the city and started teaching in November 2014.”

It was through his connection with Lynette Hazelton, an adult education coordinator and communications manager from The District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund, that Waites was able to become a tutor for the District. With their collaboration with Tech Tutors, the Mayor’s Commission hopes to improve job prospects for Philadelphia’s adults.

Diane Inverso, senior director of the Mayor’s Commission, oversees the Nutter administration’s efforts to bolster adult education policy.

“Our role is to primarily get the adult citizens in the city of Philadelphia more literate, more comfortable with reading, writing and math [and] to make them more employable,” Inverso said. “We also support the literacy providers, the people who actually offer these services, professional development training and opportunities.”

The Mayor’s Commission not only facilities adult education opportunities, but also coordinates the Keyspots in Philadelphia. Inverso said there are currently 51 organizations in the home network of Keyspots and 19 of them are in the City of Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation centers, all of which are open to the public.

“There’s multiple reasons on why people lose their jobs,” Waites said. “A lot has changed since many of these adult learners have been in school. If you don’t have basic digital literacy skills today, it’s tough to make it.”

Charna Washington is another tutor from Tech Tutors who volunteers at the IHM Center for Literacy in West Philadelphia.

Her duties include teaching students with English as a second language and the basic uses of computers for activities like shopping for groceries online, looking up the bus schedule and sending an email.

Washington has been working as a tutor for approximately five months. She originally began with four students and is now down to two.

Washington said one of her students is fluent in English, but has a hard time understanding certain terms that he reads. A way that Washington helps with that is by using Google to look up words and their definitions.

She alternates back and forth from the physical dictionary to the online version to help her student better adjust to technology so that his goal of helping his own children with their homework won’t be as difficult a task.

“One of my students is more advanced than the other because he’s pretty good with technology,” Washington said. “He’s familiar with the mobile device and how to use it as a computer, but the other students don’t grasp that.”

Many adult educators said it was common to have students familiar with their smartphones but not as comfortable with desktop or laptop computers. According to a 2012 study by the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, immigrants in the U.S. are some of the most active users of mobile devices, at times surpassing native users.

This population, as well as others that face issues fully bridging the digital divide, are the target population that various programs and organizations in the city target to tackle the issue. The organizations and programs aim to be a center for people to fully utilize the evolving technology of today’s economy.

Brian Isdell, the man who runs the Techmobile for the Free Library, said they use the modified van to supplement these static computer labs with a mobile lab to reach the public.

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