Digital literacy is an increasingly important aspect of education. This summer Paige Cross ’13, Trevor Howe ’13, and Kara Vetrano ’13 examined the use of digital technology to adults trying to obtain their GED through the five Literacy Zones in Utica. The group completed this project, entitled “Organizing to Teach Literacy, Reading Cultural Significance,” as a Levitt Summer Group Research Grant under the direction of Associate Professor of Anthropology Chaise LaDousa.
There are five literacy zone classrooms in Utica: two on the west side of the city, Utica Access Site (BOCES), St. Martin’s de Porres and the Utica Public Library, and three on the east, Kernan Elementary School and Resource Center for Independent Living. These literacy centers each have programs for adults studying for the GED, ranging from younger students who dropped out of high school, to older students who were laid off work and now need a GED to obtain employment, to refugees.
Cross, Howe, and Vetrano worked at these literacy centers tutoring students studying for the GED using a computer program called the Broadband Technologies Opportunity (BTOP). The program, developed by Portland State University, is intended to increase computer literacy by incorporating computer skills into the GED curriculum, and to therefore fill in the “digital divide” among the poor, elderly, and undereducated. The literacy centers are obligated to use BTOP in order to receive funding from the state. The Hamilton students each worked at different literacy centers and picked a topic of particular interest to them to incorporate into the group paper. Vetrano focused on the relationship between GED attainment and BTOP, while Cross examined the GED exam itself, specifically the changes caused by one of the largest for-profit education companies in the US buying the rights to the exam from the a non-profit, the previous owner. Howe focused his research on how programs like BTOP are being used in low income areas to try to close the “digital divide” that is often attributed to be a cause of poverty. Their fieldwork consisted of tutoring students, observing, and interviewing teachers. In addition to preparation at the beginning and time at the end to transcribe interviews and write the final paper, the students spent about ten weeks on the project.
Through observations and interviews, Vetrano reports that the administration had a very different perspective of the literacy center than the teachers and students, a result of the structure of the center itself. “The administration was positioned at the macro level and had little interaction with students, while the teachers interacted with students on a daily basis,” she said. In practice, as the students, teachers, and the Hamilton researchers experienced, BTOP had a lot of mishaps: broken links, a confusing layout, and often covered material that was not relevant to the students. The administration rarely had contact with BTOP, however. As a result, Vetrano found that they maintained a theoretical, idealistic perspective of BTOP and its relationship to GED attainment, while the teachers and students held a more realistic view of BTOP and the limited impact the program has on students’ lives.
Cross noted that the changes that will occur in the GED in 2013 as a result of being bought by a private company will create further challenges for low income students. It will be more expensive, which means that the state may not be able to completely subsidize the cost of the test for residents in the future. It will also become more difficult, and will only be offered on a computer. “This is a problem because many people taking the exam have little experience using a computer,” said Cross, and their research showed that BTOP is doing little to help in practice. “These changes are making the education gap more defined,” according to Cross.
Howe found that the language in BTOP suggests that when someone is not able to use digital technologies they are seen as being disadvantaged in the job market and in academia. “I also found,” he reported, “that one cannot talk about digital literacy without acknowledging factors such as race, immigration status, and family income.”
Cross, Howe and Vetrano reported that their summer research was extremely valuable for understanding students’ experiences with literacy and language in Utica. Howe said that he had never previously paid any attention to the term “digital literacy,” and was excited to have to opportunity to explore it after hearing about the Hamilton students’ findings from last summer. “This was a great opportunity to take part in field work and learn the necessary skills and methods,” said Vetrano.