Michigan Tech Helping People Cross the Digital Divide

Chuck Wallace, at left, helps Bob Veeser use his computer.
Chuck Wallace, at left, helps Bob Veeser use his computer.

It is hard to believe that only a few years ago, we used a dial-up connection to check our emails on AOL and asked Mapquest to plot our way to our vacation destination. Now, we have the Internet and GPS at the touch of our fingertips with smartphones and tablets. Many of us have grown up with these advancements in technology, but what about those who grew up in a time where phone calls and letters were the main forms of communication?

Michigan Technological University’s Breaking Digital Barriers group is working to help the elderly and others who have not grown up with digital literacy.

The group was founded in 2011 as a local outreach project, aiming to ease seniors into the digital world.  “We realized there were patterns of problems or obstacles that people were facing, and we said, well, that’s kind of interesting,” says Charles Wallace, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Computer Science, who is the group’s founder and co-coordinator. “Let’s try to identify what those obstacles are and how to overcome them.”

Now the group is seeking support through Superior Ideas, a crowdfunding web site established by Michigan Tech. So far, more than two dozen people have contributed.

Students from Michigan Tech’s computer science and humanities departments volunteer to assist participants with the basics of digital literacy. “It’s primarily an outreach program,” says Lauren Bowen, assistant professor of composition in the Department of Humanities and co-coordinator of Breaking Digital Barriers. “The core goal is to make sure that we offer something to the people who have questions or are trying to find ways into the digital environment. “We are also conducting research and doing side projects. But we always go back and look at how we can help others.”

Watching the people around them and thinking about how they use technology sparked both Wallace’s and Bowen’s interest in this work. “It really started with personal experience, and not really having the language to really explain these things,” Bowen says.

“This work makes us realize how much implicit knowledge we have about how to use a computer,” Wallace says. “When we have to put it in words for people who don’t have that knowledge, it is a challenge.”

Online at the Library, the first program started by Breaking Digital Barriers, is held at Portage Lake District Library in downtown Houghton every Friday morning.  The sessions are free, and most of the clients are elderly.  Together, learners and tutors create an informal set of goals and activities. Each tutor determines the level of the learner, and they proceed from there.  

The library is extremely grateful for the group’s work. “The gracious and kind service provided by the students from Michigan Tech has been a God-send, says library director Shawn Leche. “Their enthusiasm is infectious. The patrons are so very happy and appreciative. We can't thank enough our neighbor, Michigan Tech, and their dedicated students who provide their time for us. It is really a wonderful example of the community helping the community. The elderly people arrive computer-challenged and leave when the tutorials are over computer-ready, with wide, bright smiles on their faces. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. ”

There are other offshoots of the program. A Master’s student in Computer Science wrote her thesis on work that was inspired by Online at the Library, and there have been multiple publications inspired by the patterns the facilitators have noticed. A new project has been started in conjunction with Michigan Works!, a state-funded agency that helps people find jobs. Those seeking job help are discovering that they must move toward the digital after years of not needing that kind of literacy for their jobs. This is where the Breaking Digital Barriers group steps in, helping to teach basic computer skills to those who are searching for jobs through Michigan Works!.

Breaking Digital Barriers’ programs benefit the local community and Michigan Tech. “We are in the UP, in a rural, isolated community,” Bowen states. “It seems really important that people can find ways of connecting, and if they don’t have access to digital communication, then they have one less really important option. Plus, as everything is moving digital, paper is not an option. What are they supposed to do? I also think it is good for Michigan Tech is to get the students to come and get the non-student perspective of the consequences of design [and] the consequences of literacy or teaching.”

“There is something about helping people face to face,” Wallace adds.

Everybody has the capacity to acquire digital literacy, and teaching it can become just as big a lesson for the teacher.

Breaking Digital Barriers needs more help.  “If you have basic computer skills, patience and interest, ” Wallace encourages people to contact him at wallace@mtu.edu.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.