Associate Professor of Computer Science Charles Wallace is rethinking cyberlearning top to bottom. He’s working with K–12 and undergraduate students, software development professionals, and senior citizens to improve how humans communicate and learn in computer-intensive environments.
Digital literacy is a basic human need.
There is a revolution sweeping the nation, but millions of senior citizens are left out. Wallace believes digital literacy is a basic human need in today’s world. In 2011, together with Michigan Tech faculty and students, he began BASIC (Building Adult Skills in Computing), a grassroots effort to educate older Americans. Every Saturday morning at Portage Lake District Library in Houghton, Michigan Tech students help local seniors citizens with their computers, tablets, or smartphones, answering open-ended digital questions like, “how do I find an old friend on Facebook?” Or, “how do I stay safe online?”
There’s much more going on during these tutoring sessions than meets the eye. “The visual, motor, and cognitive challenges of standard digital interfaces are daunting for older users with limited digital experience,” explains Wallace. But there are deeper challenges as well: “digital literacy is not simply about doing a task better; it’s about building a cognitive toolset that allows flexibility and adaptability.” The Michigan Tech students who work as tutors also learn in the process. “Students are forced to reflect on the many things they take for granted—they are learning by teaching.”
A key factor behind the success of BASIC, according to Wallace, is its highly social nature. Seniors work side by side with each other and with Michigan Tech students. Being around others with the same challenges reduces anxiety. “Many seniors have a fear of exploring for fear of breaking an expensive investment. Because we work in a group, they can share ideas and choices they made, so they have more confidence.”
Now in its fifth year, the outreach program has spawned research projects. In conjunction with Professor Kelly Steelman, Cognitive and Learning Sciences, Wallace uses data from tutor experiences to create a digital learning curriculum sensitive to the needs of older students. He is also reaching out to other communities to replicate the successful Houghton-based program.
In addition to the curriculum, Wallace is overseeing the creation of a computer software tool that allows users to remember online choices they made and recall web browser behavior. As the user develops competence, the tool fades into the background. This tool can transfer to other populations—not just elderly—who face similar digital obstacles.