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Classes bridge digital divide

Sep 16 2012
Inka Foster is a volunteer instructor teaching basic computer literacy to people out in the community. Computer literacy is regarded as a new form of literacy skills essential for today's world. 

Inka Foster is a volunteer instructor teaching basic computer literacy to people out in the community. Computer literacy is regarded as a new form of literacy skills essential for today's world.

Photograph by: Bruce Stotesbury , Times Colonist

Along with the three Rs, reading, writing and 'rithmetic, a fourth element of literacy has become necessary for the modern human, adult educators say.

Computer literacy is now as important as knowledge of reading and basic numbers, says Ruth Derrick, executive director for Literacy Victoria.

"We have people coming in who are still struggling with how to use a mouse," Derrick said. "It marginalizes people when you don't have basic computer skills."

Derrick noted people who regularly use computers for things such as work, or have long had a home computer, take them for granted. But for people who lack good computer access or strong skills, everything from finding a job, applying for a job, finding a home or doing banking becomes difficult.

To help build bridges across what Literacy Victoria calls the "digital divide," the group has established what it calls the Mobile Computer Lab.

Started about one year ago with a $20,000 donation from the Times Colonist's annual Raise-a-Reader program, the mobile computer lab involves a team of volunteer instructors, equipped with four laptop computers. These people, about six in total, head into the community to help people in need learn and practise with real computers.

The mobile computer lab currently operates out of three locations: Sandy Merriman House emergency shelter for women, Camas Gardens supported housing and the James Bay Community Centre.

It's one of several outreach programs run by Literacy Victoria. Others include adult learning programs at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre and the book mobile, a kind of travelling library.

Inka Foster, co-ordinator with the Mobile Computer Lab, said the entire effort with the mobile lab is to take the computers and the instructors directly to people who need assistance.

"We take the computers to them," said Foster.

"That's the key."

In some cases, clients may already have some basic computer skills but lack the access to a machine. So bringing the laptops to these people allows them to reconnect with family or children, for example.

The program working out of the James Bay Community Centre is for seniors, some of whom may never have touched a computer before.

Instructors help them set up email accounts and show them how to exchange messages with grandchildren, for example. Health and information on medication is also of big interest to seniors.

Foster, a fourth-year psychology student at the University of Victoria, said it's always interesting to watch people become acquainted with a new communication form offered by computers.

"Sometimes they don't want to touch a computer for the first month or so," Foster said. "They just want to watch and check it out and watch us use the computer.

"People can be intimidated, but providing the help in a non-threatening, learning-centred way they can overcome that," she said.

"They come around and say, 'This is fantastic, thank you so much for bringing this out here.' " rwatts@timescolonist.com

Raise-a-Reader Day is Wednesday, Sept. 19. By purchasing a copy of Wednesday's special Raisea-Reader edition, you will be supporting literacy programs across Vancouver Island.

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