November 19, 2020

Never Too Late to Learn: Philadelphia Program Delivers Digital Literacy Among Adult Learners

“We’ve had program participants who have been unable to do anything with a computer. They were afraid they would break it. But after completing the course, they’re excited to learn more.”
— Caitlin Pratt, Director of Critical Path Learning Center, Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers

Library Patron at a Critical Path Center open house.
Library Patrons attend a Critical Path Center open house to learn about the digital literacy training courses available at Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia FIGHT)

What is a computer? How do you use a mouse? How do you write an email?

These questions are easy to answer for many of us, but despite our digitally driven world, there are some people who struggle to use everyday technology due to a lack of access to educational opportunities.

That’s why Critical Path Learning Center, a health resources library within Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers, provides digital literacy training courses with the help of an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Accelerating Promising Practices (APP) for Small Libraries grant to address the digital skills and holistic education gaps that contribute to low employment and education levels among low-income adults. Developing new approaches to adult digital inclusion that use the resources of a small library setting allows staff to develop valuable and trusting relationships with patrons.

Providing Pathways to Success
The program’s integrated approach recognizes that many of the city’s most vulnerable have a variety of motivations for furthering their digital skills and education. It can be to provide pathways to employment, higher education, and vocational training programs, or they may simply love to learn new things.

To get started, the project team assesses adult learners—about 10 to 15 individuals in this first cohort—to determine existing digital skills. What do they know or what can they do already? The next step is to help these learners determine their goals and identify the best courses or “pathway of learning” for them to meet those goals. Finally, the program provides learners with case management along the way to ensure that they can focus on learning even when barriers to engagement arise, such as difficulty understanding one of the lessons.

Philadelphians who have limited access to educational support and have high rates of unemployment and homelessness have benefitted greatly from this program. “We’ve already seen positive outcomes from earlier this year,” said Caitlin Pratt, Director of Critical Path Learning Center, Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers. “There has been an increased comfort level when using computers among the participants who have taken the classes.”

Library Patrons attending a Critical Path Center open house.
Photo courtesy of Philadelphia FIGHT.

Seeing the participants’ confidence grow throughout the courses has been Pratt’s favorite part of working with the program.

“The increased competence in participants shines through as they become more and more comfortable using digital devices,” she said. “It’s really inspiring to see how far they’ve come.”

At the Intersection of Health and Literacy
Acquiring digital literacy skills hasn’t only been proven to increase employment and educational opportunities. It also has been linked to improved health, a finding which has been amplified during this year’s events.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how deeply digital literacy is tied to health literacy,” Pratt explained. “The ability to use technology is crucial to accessing and understanding information regarding your health.”

Naturally, COVID-19 has presented challenges in reaching program participants, but like so many programs across the country, the digital skill building program will be offered online as a temporary response to social distancing measures.

Of course, online courses don’t work for people with low digital literacy. To remedy this, Pratt and her team at Philadelphia FIGHT had to be flexible and get creative.

“We’ve been mailing people course materials, and our digital literacy educator speaks to participants over the phone to problem solve any issues that arise,” Pratt explained. “When you meet participants with the technology they’re comfortable with, they are more likely to be open to taking the next step in the learning process.”

Glass wall in the Critical Path Center open house.
Photo courtesy of Philadelphia FIGHT.

In the future, Pratt hopes to continue to reach eager adult learners via the online platform until it’s possible for the program to continue in person again.

About the Project
Grant Project Name: 
Digital Skill Building Pathway
Grant Log Number: LG-28-19-0233-19
Year Awarded: 2019
Recipient: Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers

Project Contact:
Caitlin Pratt
Director of Critical Path Learning Center
Philadelphia FIGHT Community Health Centers

Accelerating Promising Practices for Small Libraries