The goal of digital literacy courses is to help residents enter the digital age while creating new broadband customers.
By J. Craig Anderson Staff Writer Portland Press herald
Internet service providers in Maine’s rural communities are taking an active role in guiding seniors and others with limited computer skills across the digital divide.
Rural ISPs have partnered with nonprofit organizations, libraries and adult education centers to teach basic computer skills to thousands of Mainers. Such classes help the ISPs grow their customer base, but the companies said they also benefit the entire state economically.
Machias-based Axiom Technologies LLC and Unity-based UniTel have partnered with the Unity Foundation to offer free computer literacy classes at various times throughout the year in Unity and Belfast since 2015.
So far, 1,100 students have signed up for the classes, with a completion rate of 92 percent, said Lawrence Sterrs, chairman and CEO of Unity Foundation. About 80 percent of those students are older than 55, and about 70 percent are women, he said.
“We’re drawing students from a lot of different areas,” Sterrs said.
The primary goal is to help computer novices feel safer and more comfortable interacting with the technology, he said. The first round of classes was so successful that what began as a one-year program is now stretching into its third year, and other ISPs are bringing the model to their own communities.
OTELCO, a division of Alabama-based Otelco, has been sponsoring classes in basic computer skills at Gray-New Gloucester Adult & Community Education in Gray. OTELCO pays for the instructor and overhead costs so the students can attend for free.
New Gloucester resident Bill Kiley was attending his third week of the five-week class Wednesday. The 80-year-old retiree said his goal is to become familiar with everyday tasks such as emailing and web browsing.
“I’ve got a computer – I’ve never used it,” Kiley said. “I mainly want to get on so I can look things up, and things like that.”
Email was the topic of Wednesday’s two-hour class in Gray. Instructor Michael Lamoureux, technology integrator for Gray-New Gloucester middle and high schools, guided students through the steps of signing in to an email account, creating a new message, organizing and deleting messages, attaching and downloading files, and other basic skills. Lamoureux also touched on peripheral topics such as digital security and email etiquette.
Space is limited in the class. There are only eight workstations, so Lamoureux can only teach eight students at a time. The class is nearly always full, he said.
“From the beginning, we create an open environment,” Lamoureux said. “Hopefully by the end of the class, they’re more comfortable clicking. Almost 100 percent of them just want to become more comfortable.”
Student Mike Meder of New Gloucester said his motivation for taking the class was to brush up on his computer skills in anticipation of making a career change. He said one of the class’s strengths is that it allows novices to explore the computer’s various functions in a supervised setting without having to worry about making mistakes.
“You’re not afraid to poke at all the different things on your computer – you don’t have that fear,” Meder said. “Is it helpful? Yeah.”
A basic familiarity with computers is now essential to almost any job, said David Vasconcelos, director of business development at Portland-based employment agency Pro Search Inc. In most cases, it isn’t even possible to apply for a job without using a computer, he said.
“The days of mailing in a résumé via snail mail are wholly over,” Vasconcelos said.
Most younger workers were raised on computers and thus have a high level of confidence and literacy, he said, but there are some in their mid-40s and older who lack experience and are timid about using the technology.
Digital literacy classes are a great way to help such workers overcome their anxiety, Vasconcelos said.
“Getting over that initial concern or fear, I think, is paramount for them to be able to go into a workplace,” he said.
OTELCO Marketing Manager Tracy Scheckel said the company has been sponsoring classes in various communities where it does business in Maine, Vermont and West Virginia. While the classes help create new customers for the business, Scheckel said she sees them primarily as a form of community service.
“It’s just more important to me that if eight people want to take the class every semester, that they can do that,” she said.
Axiom CEO Susan Corbett said her company has trained more than 5,000 adult learners across Maine since 2006. In 2014, Axiom spun off a nonprofit called the Axiom Education & Training Center to focus on digital literacy and other areas of education.
The center’s offerings aren’t limited to basic computer skills. Its curriculum includes classes on internet security, popular applications such as Microsoft Excel and even basic computer programming.
ISPs in Maine see computer education as a means to boost the adoption rate for broadband internet service in Maine from its current rate of 75 percent, she said.
But there are broader economic benefits to creating a more digitally literate population in Maine, Corbett said, whether it’s training people to apply for a job online or helping them learn a more specialized computer skill such as working with spreadsheets.
“We’re also looking at digital literacy as a workforce development tool,” she said.