March 23, 2010

Learning computers to learn about health

Bread for the City's new Computer and Health Education Class has completed its first session, and its students have come a long way. The course teaches basic computer literacy with the ultimate goal of accessing reliable health information online, and Vince Hill, Bread for the City's Americorps volunteer who has helped lead the class, was amazed at how quickly the students soaked up this information.

"At first, people looked at this piece of equipment like alien technology," he said. "By the third course, they, without prompting, came in, plugged in the power cord, mouse, booted up and brought up Google!" Clients have been meeting once a week to use our computers to access the internet, something they've never been able to do at home (the average income of our clients is $7,000, and few could afford their own PC and ISP).

The class is co-taught by two of Bread's own clients and volunteers, Michelle Washington and Susan Berger.

Michelle used to be an elementary school teacher and recently started collecting computer donations to teach PC-literacy to her neighbors. "I was teaching it out of my apartment--to seniors. Seniors were expressing an interest in accessing the internet." In fact, older students in BFC's class have brought in their younger relatives to let them teach their elders what they already know about the internet.

Now, in addition to teaching our course, Michelle has also offered to drive students to Project Reboot in Rockville, Maryland, to pick up a cheap refurbished computer.

Susan used to teach computer courses at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, and was an IT coordinator for charter schools, and is now helping our clients become comfortable with the machines. She starts by pointing out all of the hardware, the buttons, the drives and the mouse, and saying, "Do not fear this!" Susan says that fear of breaking the machines or using them incorrectly keeps many beginners away, as computers appear to be very fragile and very expensive.

One of the students, Dorothy Kemp, was held back for years from using this technology because of a horrible work experience. After a coworker lost a very important document while working on the computer, which almost resulted in their termination, she resolved to write everything by hand and stay away from computers all together. After exploring for only a few weeks what computers have to offer during our class, though, she realized what she has been missing.

People were thrilled to overcome this initial barrier to information but are still ready to learn more. Vince says that "people feel so empowered when they can find information for themselves or their family members. People are really hungry for this access." One of our students, Debbie Banks, recently went to Project Reboot and picked up her very first personal computer. “I’m so thankful," she said, "because even though this class is going to end, having this computer will keep me going on practicing, and will help me out try to get to back in school”.

Bread for the City is doing its small part to address the drastic gap in information access caused by the "digital divide," but there's a lot more work to be done. Roughly 40% of Americans still don't have internet access at home, and while other organizations like Byte Back, Project Reboot and First Time Computers tackle the issue head on in the District, many DC residents still don't own computers or don't know how to use them. And even before people can use computers, they have to know how to read, and adult literacy is an entire issue itself, especially in DC. Nevertheless, courses like ours provide extremely useful and needed education to the many low-income workers who have never had the chance to experience computers regularly.


Mike Licht, said...

"And even before people can use computers, they have to know how to read ..."

There is no computer literacy for those who read poorly -- one third of American adults. Computers can be useful in teaching literacy, but access to computers alone will not bring people out of poverty or help them nourish themselves better.

Erin Garnaas-Holmes said...

No, expanding computer and internet access alone will not bring people out of poverty. Computer education may serve only some of our clients, but it may open up employment and education opportunities or simply just expand horizons for those who are literate but have never used a PC. Thus, since it is within our means to address PC literacy, we have done so.