Chris Dahlke of the Winona Digital Literacy Project demonstrates the smart board at Central School.
by BEN MCLEOD
It is difficult to get through a day in 2018 without at least some kind of interaction with a computer. Whether it’s a desktop or laptop, a smartphone or tablet, the need for computer literacy is a crucial one. However, for Winonans who did not grow up with computers, or those people who have not needed to interact with computers or smartphones, the technology might seem intimidating. Staffers from Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) and the Winona Public Library (WPL) have joined forces and, with assistance from a Bremer Bank L3 grant, have pulled together the Winona Digital Literacy Project (WDLP). The all-volunteer organization has been offering a series of introductory classes in computer literacy, safety, and the use of some of the most common programs that many people would need to use.
“Bremer Bank is the one who brought us together to start this conversation,” recalled program director Chris Dahlke, “but it’s an easy conversation to have in a small town.” Dahlke found himself in conversation with WPL Adult Services Librarian Samantha TerBeest, who assists library patrons in the use of library computers. “We’re both involved with literacy at different levels. It’s basically what we do in our regular jobs,” said Dahlke. “It’s a natural extension of what we do. The need came about because neither of us could offer exactly what the public needs.”
The Otto Bremer Foundation initiated the Bremer Rural Libraries and Literacy Leadership Institute (L3) in 2012, with an aim toward supporting the literacy and library programs in 12 rural Minnesota communities. The success of the program in Minnesota led the L3 Initiative to branch into Wisconsin in 2013, and it launched a third stage in support of North Dakota libraries from 2014-16. Dahlke and TerBeest each took training with L3 and each received a $1,000 grant to start their program. “Everything is volunteered. We each got $1,000 to get going, all the rest now is done basically with the two of us and our volunteers,” Dahlke explained. “All our teachers are volunteers, all the people behind the scenes who get behind the project are from the community, based on community needs. We see what kind of volunteers we have, what they can offer. It makes sense for me to be involved, for Sam to be involved. Both of us do not get paid. We volunteer as much of our own time to keep it going as we can.”
One of the program’s volunteer instructors, Tom Hill, director of classroom support at Winona State University, said, “The biggest question is security. A lot of people don’t put any security on cellphones. Actually, last week we did talk to that, the targeted phone scams, spoofing, caller ID scams. It branches into areas that people don’t expect.” Knowing the basics of safe cellphone use can save individuals hundreds or thousands of dollars. Phone scams are on the rise in Winona County and around the nation, and all too often the first clue a smartphone user has that something is wrong is a mysterious charge to a credit card or bank from some mystery transaction, at which point, the damage may already be done. Dahlke said, “That was the very first class we ever offered, a series of Internet safety classes, with phishing and other subjects.” With the increasing threat to security, he is certain that the subject will be offered again.
Aside from protecting against theft or damage, most of what the classes offer have focused on the basics of using modern technology. The Winona Digital Literacy Project has hosted recent classes on using social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; creating documents and spreadsheets; and even a beginning primer on computer use, including email and learning the basics of turning on a computer and the difference between types of computers. On Wednesday, May 15, there will be a class on “how to be a good net citizen.” It isn’t uncommon for online interactions to become heated, and sometimes people say things on the Internet that they wouldn’t dream of saying out loud to another person. Being a good net citizen can help users avoid pitfalls and common errors that could make using the Internet more unpleasant than it needs to be.
The most recent series of classes has been offered at the former Central school building, in an effort to make them more accessible to people who may not drive or own cars, or cannot travel after the Winona bus service stops running. The program has had its home at Minnesota State College Southeast, and while organizers still have a solid relationship with the college, the class at Central was a successful experiment. However, the current series of classes will be the last offered at that location. With Central up for sale, the Winona Digital Literacy Project is one of a number of groups that will be searching for new space in the coming year.
The classes can help Winonans to enjoy social media, the Internet and their smartphones, but there are a lot of practical uses for the information, too. The WDLP provides information vital to online job searches, general equivalency degree (GED) testing, and English as second language (ESL) education. “We try to survey people, find out what’s needed,” said Dahlke. “People are interested in learning about genealogy, Internet security, –– we’re looking at an MS Office class, a Google Drive and Google Docs class, as we can find qualified teachers. That way we can offer skills to people who don’t want to go back to college, they just need to learn this or that.”
Being a wholly volunteer-run program, the WDLP is always looking for helpers. Instructor Hill recalled his initial invitation: “When I was first approached it sounded like a great fit. What actually started it for me was work with ESL, and other instructors asked if I could work with Spanish speakers in the program with computer questions. And other people were asking the same questions.” So Hill made time to volunteer, and has been the course instructor for the most recent basic computer literacy classes. “It’s all about the community, and who can volunteer their time or resources,” explained Dahlke. “If you have skills in an area, give us a call. If we have an instructor with sufficient skills, then we can decide what kind of class we can offer, and we go from there. The more volunteers we have, the more offerings will be available.”
The Winona Digital Literacy Project takes inquiries about its classes and volunteering through its website. However, for anyone who needs to take a computer basics class before signing up for a computer basics class online, interested parties can contact Dahlke directly by phone. The classes are free, and those interested in attending are welcome to attend one or all of the offerings in a program. He can be reached at 507-494-0924 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Winona Digital Literacy Project website is at winonadlp.org.