Defeating the Digital Divide: Detroit Librarians Pioneer Programming That Develops Detroiters’ Digital Skills

| Meghan Urisko, MSFT Detroit Civic Tech Fellow

The National Institute for Literacy estimates that 47% of Detroit’s adult population, estimated at 200,000 people, can be categorized as “functionally illiterate,” defined as the “inability of an individual to use reading, speaking, writing, and computational skills in everyday life situations.” As services are increasingly delivered digitally, lack of computational skills can limit resident’s ability to access services. Residents often seek at libraries, where librarians can assist for processes they cannot complete themselves owing to lack of devices, connectivity, or digital literacy skills. On Detroit’s West side, the Parkman Branch of Detroit Public Library works to both address existing issues and decrease the problem in future generations.

Librarian Qumisha Goss creates curricula for technology courses at the Parkman Branch of Detroit Public Library. For adults and seniors, Parkman offers introductory and advanced computing courses in addition to existing literacy and math support. Courses include how to make a resume in Microsoft Word and support for online job searches. Ms. Goss has also developed special curriculum for mobile device and tablet use. The library also hosts “learning circles,” where community members gather at the library to do free online courses with a librarian present to assist with questions. These programs encourage adults to try new technologies in a safe environment.

Goss is passionate about providing youth with opportunities to explore their interest in technology. These efforts focus on kids aged eight through thirteen. Goss taught herself to code to teach coding lessons during summer and winter vacation. She also developed curriculum using Raspberry Pis and Microbits to help students understand physical computing. “You give these kids a computer and they can get on Facebook or Youtube but you’d be surprised by some of the things they don’t know,” says Goss, explaining why she includes hardware-focused lessons.

One of the most innovative programs at Parkman is Wash and Learn. This summer, the Parkman Branch was chosen to pilot this program, the brainchild of Allistair Chang from Libraries Without Borders. The idea was simple – develop programming the length of a wash cycle. The lessons focus on literacy and computational thinking. For the library, providing programs out in the community helps them connect with parents and let them know about educational opportunities at the library.

Qumisha Goss and Crystal Jolly, the Parkman Branch’s Children’s Librarian spent time hosting Wash and Learn programs at the local laundromat. These programs lead families to sign up for library cards and participated in Parkman’s summer reading program. While the summer pilot is over, devices remain in the laundromat and Goss hopes to scale this program so other branches of the Detroit Public Library can build similar partnerships.

As society becomes increasingly dependent on digital literacy, developing digital literacy at an early age becomes increasingly important. Luckily for Detroit, libraries like the Parkman Branch and librarians like Qumisha Goss and Crystal Jolly are helping residents address these new challenges. These efforts aim to decrease functional illiteracy in Detroit and ensure a brighter future for all Detroiters.

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