The Multnomah County Library is one of 51 establishments to receive the National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library services this year. The $500,000 grant will be used to conduct a study in collaboration with Portland State’s Literacy, Language & Technology Research Group. The survey is expected to launch spring of 2015 and will last 7–10 months.
The grant was conceptualized by research assistant professor Jill Castek in collaboration with professor Stephen Reder, both of the Department of Applied Linguistics. Aiding them in the process was LLTR staff member Drew Pizzolato, along with Information Services Director of the Multnomah County Library Cindy Gibbon and many others.
“It is never an individual or sole effort or any one person’s ideas,” Castek said. “I think that this group [at PSU], together with the Multnomah County Library group, all brought to bear their things that they’re very passionate about and they all, in some ways, made their way into the grant. It was a true collaborative effort, I would say.”
The study, designed by the LLTR, will survey 700 library users of all backgrounds to determine how the library can better fit the technological needs of its users.
Castek said the library has many innovative outreach programs to help better digital literacy skills, which the survey hopes to help improve further. The survey will take the form of an assessment that requires subjects to demonstrate their online problem solving skills and will reach out to a diverse group of library patrons.
“We’ve tapped into a valid and reliable assessment called Education & Skills Online that was developed as part of [Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies]. That effort around PIAAC has told us that there are real deficits in skills and literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology rich environments for individuals ages 16–65,” said Castek, who noted that the U.S. populations in those areas lags compared to many other technology-rich countries’ populations.
“There is a serious challenge in helping those individuals beyond the K–12 level really begin to connect skills and develop a lifelong program of learning that can help them really achieve their life aims,” Castek said.
Pizzolato discussed the gap between modern technology and learning that relates to this study.
“Just because people might have access through their smartphone or the library or at home, doesn’t mean they’re using it in the kinds of ways that really let them tap into economic and education opportunities. I think what we’re trying to do is help the library really build a meaningful bridge where people are accessing the resources they offer in ways that really make a difference in their eyes,” Pizzolato said.
Castek said digital literacy and literacy itself go hand in hand.
“I think that to be fully literate, you need to have facility in offline and online reading, writing and communication skills,” Castek said.
“[It is] a huge paradigm shift, to say someone’s literate only if they are able to use the computer and the web with fluidity,” Pizzolato said.
PSU honors professor David Wolf taught many low-income high school students in Newark, New Jersey at Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School. In his career, he observed this gap in digital literacy.
“Computer training or library services were astonishingly poor at the school I taught at, and this is especially true in communities and schools with low resources,” Wolf said.
“You couldn’t get the phones off of them…So you have this prosthesis, like an artificial limb, it’s like a part of their body. And yet they can’t do a research paper. They don’t understand how to verify the merit of the information they’re getting on different sites,” Wolf said.
Wolf noted that many of the students he taught knew just enough about navigating the Internet to plagiarize.
“You educate students and you want them to be good citizens…You’d like to think that we could teach students to be thoughtful, computer interpreters, and not just consumers in some obvious way,” Wolf said.
In 2002, the Bush administration cut funding to programs like the Technology Opportunities Program, which provided grants for increasing the availability of technology like the Internet.
Pizzolato noted that President Obama made more efforts to invest in digital inclusion in 2008 with the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, which offered grants to aid the expansion of Internet access and literacy.
“There was a huge push that only wound down recently, and I think that seeded a lot of small projects where people are doing training and digital inclusion work,” Pizzolato said.
According to The Oregonian, an estimated 15 percent of American households still lack Internet access.
“It’s a real social justice issue, and we’re passionate about it for that reason,” Pizzolato said.