Finding Appropriate Models For Teaching Digital Skills In The Community

Since 2013 I have been thinking about how Ragged University can do digital teaching in the community. The theory goes that computers are common place, that they are accessible and that everyone will gain something from knowing how to use a computer. How hard could it be to help people learn how to do what they need to with the equipment available ?  This is a learning journal of the progressive experiments required to find appropriate models of event that address the mysterious ‘digital divides’ that exist.

First stop, the task was to identify computers which everyone could use for free. What sprung to mind was the fact that commonly we find computers in libraries and some community centres. I looked at the local computers and, on the face of things, saw that the machines were good.

Digital Literacies

Next, it was how much access do we get to the software systems so that we can access the various functions of the computers. Almost invariably they were set up in such a way that the functions which are useful (transferable) to a home context were locked down.
The standard approach seems to be using Microsoft as an operating system, and when a network is set up, limit the ability of the public to change settings and do things like install software. Often the internet access is limited, although it is getting better as time goes on.
To my surprise, these problems are not just found in public libraries and community centres, but similar maintenance strategies where used in colleges and universities. An example is when I went to Newbattle Abbey College and tried to show the work of Professor Sugata Mitra to the college as it had such pertinence regarding the teaching they do. A ‘porn blocker’ software prevented the information from being accessed.

I sat at a round table between the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Society of Edinburgh and contributed my thoughts on digital access and the digital divide. What became apparent was that in many academic spaces the teachers are being told to innovate with technology and teaching but being hamstrung by being given very limited access to the systems and settings which they need to teach and innovate…

The pragmatic reasoning for this – I assume – is that the software on the machines requires maintenance so that it keeps on functioning. Microsoft systems are the worst – in my experience – for this. They decay very fast when they are not actively being screened for viruses, malware, spyware, as well as having their registries cleaned and hard drives defragmented (amongst other things). The way to pre-empt this is to limit the computers so completely that they are effectively wordprocessers with access to a portion of the internet.
Thus, for teaching/learning purposes, you need software which is not in such significant constraints. Thus the public computers which are available were not suitable for learning skills like:

  • Learning how to set up your computer
  • Learning how to install software and take it off
  • Learning how to secure and clean your computer with antivirus software
  • Learning how to secure and clean your computer with antimalware/spyware
  • Learning how to make your computer run faster using internal settings
  • Learning how to upgrade your computers RAM or change a component