Article by Larry Britt of RIFLI
Computer Science & Social Media Coordinator
The RI Family Literacy Initiative (RIFLI) is a 16-year-old-adult education agency and we primarily serve immigrants – approximately 250 a year. We offer an educational continuum from beginner English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to Career and College Transitions preparation. We partner with many libraries, work sites and community agencies where we offer our classes. Over the past year we’ve advanced technology initiatives that we hope will build a cohesive, integrated solution to address our students’ digital literacy needs.
In January 2015, RIFLI decided to extend learning beyond two sessions a week for students in its ESL Computer Classes. Since our classes take place in library branches, the program decided to leverage that relationship and have students use their library cards to borrow tablet computers. But lending tablets was only part of the access challenge. Many students had no home Internet service and without an affordable data plan, tablets alone didn’t allow them access to the limitless educational content available on the Internet. Mobile Beacon provided a solution with low cost mobile Wi-Fi hotspots that RIFLI students borrow with their tablets free of cost for the duration of classes.
In an average class, one third to a half of the students don’t have home computers or Internet access. Highly motivated students will use libraries for homework and skills practice after class but most students don’t have time to do this. Experience has shown that student progress is limited if they’re not doing homework and practicing new skills outside of class. The pace of classes slows down when digitally disconnected students request content review. Students who are able to do homework and practice new skills outside of class feel that they’re being held back while sitting through review sessions when they could be learning new skills.
Now, in the “always on” Internet spirit of having technology when and where you want it, students have control of their technology skills acquisition. Like many working professionals, they can “work from home” at times that are convenient for them.
In developing a Tablet Lending Policy and Wi-Fi Device Lending Policy, RIFLI researched similar 1:1 K-12 policies, university library policies as well as policies at other library systems. Since we’re connected with a public library, we decided to bar code and catalog all equipment. Students borrow equipment, as they do with books and other media, using their library cards. They sign a lending policy and agreement. Fines are assessed for overdue or damaged equipment. Students are made fully aware of the potential financial risks and all have willingly taken on the responsibilities associated with borrowing valuable equipment.
Student feedback continues to be tremendously positive. When devices have problems they’re calling teachers to help them debug issues because they’re accustomed to having the Internet and they don’t want to wait until the next class to get re-connected. After only a few weeks with RIFLI provided tablets and Mobile Beacon Wi-Fi hotspots, they’re asking how they can inexpensively acquire their own devices and Internet access. RIFLI teachers are helping students make purchase decisions via the everyoneon.org initiative.
Everyone agrees the weather has been harsh on the Northeast this winter. Despite many class cancellations and February school break, students have been working from home. It’s hard to measure but students seem proud to be trusted with the equipment and they are passing digital literacy assessments at a faster and higher rate than before device lending. During the February class break, several students sent cell phone photos of themselves using their tablets. They wanted to show their teacher that they were doing homework and reviewing class PowerPoint presentations!
For RIFLI’s Director Karisa Tashjian, this expanding program “blurs the lines between language/content learning and using technology.”