We exist in a digitized world, and the COVID-19 pandemic has placed particular emphasis on the level of digital literacy and access to digital resources required to execute the essential aspects of our daily existence. For many low-income families, seniors, and immigrants, this new reality is challenging to negotiate.
Well before the pandemic emerged, Cape Fear Literacy Council (CFLC) and many of its community partners recognized these critical disparities in digital access and education across the Cape Fear region. CFLC has a 35-year history of providing effective, personalized education to adults through one-on-one tutoring and small classes.
Like so many other organizations and businesses, the pandemic has forced us to rethink our priorities and reimagine the way we provide services. Our goal is to continue to provide our students with high-quality educational experiences in Adult Literacy, English as a Second Language, Citizenship, GED Preparation, and of course, Digital Literacy. Our hope is that we can use this opportunity to help bridge the gap so many of our students are experiencing as they try to connect to an increasingly online world.
Recently, CFLC has been operating on a hybrid model. Our facility is open on an appointment-only basis for tutor pairs who lack computer access or the digital skills to work remotely. However, for safety reasons, all multi-person classes are being offered online, and many one-on-one pairs are also meeting remotely. As we look to the near future, and see our COVID numbers rising, we are taking this opportunity to provide computer orientations to our students, so they can establish email addresses and connect to classes online.
We are also providing training to tutors, so they can use Zoom or other video platforms to continue to teach. Recently, the Literacy Council was fortunate to receive a grant award from The Landfall Foundation for remote-learning equipment, technology, and data packages – thus allowing us to provide access for learners in digitally-vulnerable areas.
There is a bright spot: for many of our students and tutors, the online format has broken down barriers caused by transportation, work schedule, and childcare issues; the option to learn remotely has allowed students the exciting new opportunity to engage in the classes. And while there was definitely a learning curve, students and tutors are still bonding and creating meaningful educational experiences through digital platforms.
One ESL tutor reported: “In our Zoom class today, we were working on the first person, present tense, and how to convert sentences into third person. After a few rounds [my students] mastered it! We were all so excited celebrating and cheering over the computer, even my wife came in from the other room to congratulate the class on their hard work! She overheard the whole thing and wanted to tell my students how proud she was of them, too.”
An Adult Literacy tutor reported: “My student has had a stroke and due to health issues, does not want to meet in person, but we’ve been able to keep up with his studies just fine with FaceTime. He is doing great, and making rapid improvements with his vocabulary and spelling. One unexpected bonus is that his wife has been able to join in the process, and she is really helping him and keeping him involved with his homework and practice now that she knows what we are working on.”
Historically, CFLC has offered computer instruction in classes and labs. In the past two years, we have grown a successful new program, Computers on Wheels (COWs), which was established to bridge the growing digital divide in our community by providing a mobile computer lab complete with multiple laptops, a portable printer, Wi-Fi, and the instruction/training to support those who wanted to improve digital literacy skills but could not attend classes at the Literacy Council. More than 300 students have been served by this program.
Community partnerships have been at the heart of COW’s success. Earlier this spring, CFLC and the Good Shepherd Center, a nonprofit partner that supports those dealing with homelessness, were able to provide access and training to individuals in order to register and monitor the progress of their CARES Act stimulus checks. Additionally, CFLC has partnered with NC Works and StepUp Wilmington for employment and workforce development-related projects.
However, with the pandemic making these hands-on learning approaches problematic, we are looking for ways to make our digital instruction more accessible, and exploring self-directed online curricula that our students can use to improve their skills. We have an active need for volunteers willing to help students with digital orientations and to navigate their online options. Like the rest of the world, we are eagerly awaiting the day when the physical doors of our community can be safely reopened and our mobile lab can roll again.
We hope that the current situation shines a light on the need for digital access in our community and encourages individuals and organizations to help provide both access and education in the Cape Fear region.
Erin Payne is the Director of Fund Development for Cape Fear Literacy Council. A former executive director of several nonprofits in southeastern North Carolina, Erin has over twenty years of experience in the corporate, nonprofit, and state government environments. Having a strong professional and personal interest in expanding educational opportunities to all members of our community, Erin has been involved with the Literacy Council since 2009 – first as a Board of Directors member then becoming a member of CLFC’s staff in 2013.
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