The pandemic’s impacts on our campus research ecosystem are many and varied. In his guest blog, computer scientist Dr. Charles Wallace (CS) shares how not meeting in person illuminated a new opportunity.
For more than a decade, our tutors in the Building Adult Skills in Computing (BASIC) program met face to face with people in the community to help them become more digitally competent and confident. A big part of our success was the in-person aspect of our tutoring; personal contact relieved anxiety among learners and helped tutors better understand their issues.
The pandemic ended that. But it also revealed a new opportunity. For our Breaking Digital Barriers research group, the pandemic’s demand for digital literacy served as a calling.
Challenge: Rural Communities Need Digital Infrastructure
The COVID-19 pandemic literally shut the doors on our operation, as the community centers that supported us were forced to close temporarily, eliminating the physical proximity between tutor and learner that had been so important in our work. Nevertheless, we made the decision to move to an all-online format, using Zoom and its screen-sharing functionality to give us access. To our surprise, we encountered an explosion in interest, as many people who had never attended BASIC sessions found themselves in need of online communication. Helping someone navigate the Zoom installation process by phone is a delicate procedure that I described in an earlier Unscripted article.
Our long-held suspicions were confirmed: Our in-person tutoring sessions were reaching only a fraction of the population who needed it. Indeed, some of the people most in need, without the means to travel to our physical locations, were among those being left out.
The opportunity waiting for us in the COVID-19 crisis was a chance to rethink the tutor-learner relationship. While there is nothing quite like helping people in person, what if we could provide a user experience where tutors interacted with learners directly through their devices — in a sense, having a live tutor “inside” the device? This would allow our digital assistance to grow substantially, reaching people who did not have the ability to attend live help sessions easily, and allowing for in-place assistance at people’s homes or workplaces. This idea is at the heart of our Illuminated Devices project, which has just received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the new Strengthening American Infrastructure program.