Helping Patrons Keep Up in Our Digital Age: Promising Practices in Libraries

September 29th, 2021 | Blogs

Adults need digital literacy to access essential information, compete for jobs, and participate in education. These needs existed long before 2020, but were highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic as adults with developing digital literacy skills had difficulty accessing unemployment benefits, participating in virtual doctors’ appointments, and registering for COVID tests and vaccinations. During the pandemic, the tremendous need  to get devices, internet access, and digital literacy training to everyone who does not have access became clear.  

Libraries are well-positioned to meet that need. 

Public libraries across the country are working to increase the skills of adults by weaving technology-based learning tools and practices into their education and workforce development services. 

In 2018, the Providence Public Library, in partnership with World Education, designed the Propagating Promising Practices for Literacy and Workforce Development in Libraries Project (P3) to support libraries as they adopt three evidence-based practices that support adults working toward concrete goals (such as a high school credential, citizenship test, or job application) as they develop transferable literacy and digital skills. Piloted in nine libraries, diverse in size and location, these practices are being documented on a project website that includes planning tools, implementation examples, and key lessons learned.

The three practices are:

Learning Lounges – informal learning spaces that are staffed to offer “just-in-time,” no-appointment necessary support in using technology to meet education and employment goals. Learning Lounges may be situated at the library or with community partners, such as a housing authority or employment center. 

Mobile Learning – support for accessing mobile-friendly learning resources. Cellphones are ubiquitous but underutilized tools for learning. Libraries can help patrons make use of their phones and devices by coaching them in how to download and navigate learning apps, demonstrating how to use their smartphones to study, and following up to answer questions and encourage persistence. Mobile learning increases access to learning for adults who may not have access to the internet or a computer, or who face other barriers to learning. 

Learning Circles – lightly facilitated study groups for learners who want to take an online course together. In this informal environment, peers provide motivational support that reinforces learning and persistence. The facilitators guide a discussion process but are expressly not content experts teaching a course. 

The original goal of the P3 Project was for libraries to initiate or strengthen their use of these three practices in order to more fully integrate technology into their educational services, especially services for patrons seeking to build academic, digital, or employment skills. However, as the pandemic accelerated libraries’ overall use of technology in new and innovative ways, the three practices evolved as well. Learning Lounges, once constrained by limited in-person staff hours, explored more flexible scheduling as an online service; Mobile Learning, initially implemented as a discrete practice, was embedded in the supports offered by Learning Lounges; and Learning Circles, originally organized around packaged online courses, were seen as potential vehicles for introducing library-produced content, such as online tours of the library’s own resources. These developments demonstrated the adaptability of the three practices to new settings and purposes.

As we look for cross-library patterns and underlying lessons, two preliminary takeaways have emerged. First is the importance of engaged library leadership that encourages innovation and promotes collaboration internally and with community partners. Library leadership at the Riverside County Library System, for example, authorized their new mobile van to include a Learning Lounge, enabling the library to bring computer access and personalized support to rural residents. 

Second, successful onboarding of patrons to any of these practices relies on a thorough intake and orientation process. A brief one-time introduction is unlikely to prepare patronsmany of whom are not comfortable with technologyto continue on independently. 

All of the practices are more fruitful when they start from an understanding of what the patron is looking to learn and what they already know. A simple conversational assessment of their experience with technology and then careful mentoring to navigate the necessary devices, websites, or apps is key to preparing adults for success. This initial onboarding may require multiple meetings and some hand-holding!

Post-pandemic, the need for strong digital literacy skills will continue to increase as more educational opportunities will be offered virtually, more employees will be working remotely, and more services remain online. The P3 Project aims to assist these patrons and to further the position of public libraries as welcoming community hubs for lifelong learning, digital inclusion, and economic empowerment.

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