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Across the Great Divide

Can family literacy programs prepare families for a technology-driven society? The potential is there.

by Jeri Levesque
Family literacy programs strive to promote school success in children and economic self- sufficiency in parents by integrating intergenerational literacy activities with parents' life-centered demands. How do family literacy projects integrate educational technologies and prepare families for success in a society increasingly dependent upon, even driven by, technology?

I explored this question as a statewide evaluation consultant for a midwestern state's Even Start family literacy programs. Over the course of one year, I visited nine program sites to observe and interview family literacy staff. I also taught five Internet and three distance-learning workshops for practitioners, e-mailed an Internet technology survey to 12 project directors (only four of whom responded), and reviewed local programs' annual evaluation reports.

During my site visits I never once observed an adult learner using the Internet. Few computers were wired to the Internet, since much of the equipment I saw was from the Apple IIe era. I frequently observed adults practicing keyboard skills such as typing, making personal greeting cards using the Print Shopô program, and practicing basic study skills using a software program. These observations are in line with a recent federal report (NTIA, 1999a), which concluded that there is a gap between those who have access to new technologies and those who do not. My observations confirm the NTIA conclusion that adults with less education, especially low-income parents in family literacy programs, who could perhaps benefit most from the Internet's educational value, are being left behind in terms of their skills and familiarity with technology.

The Reality

The nine program directors I visited identified use of computers and the Internet as a strong interest of many parents in their programs. For example, one adult educator reported that women in her program significantly increased their attendance when they were given e-mail addresses and daily access to the Internet. However, she later abolished Internet access when she discovered that all of the women were signing into chat rooms to find men to date. Three women dropped out of the program when their computer access was eliminated. Conversely, another director stated that she encouraged her learners' use of e-mail pen pals, journal writing, parenting research, and writing development on the computers. She reported higher retention and attention rates as a direct consequence of her center's increased access to educational technology.

I toured each program's computer lab to determine how adult learners use technology on a daily basis. Every site had a battery of computers reserved for the PLATO  software program, which provides practice exercises and computer-assisted preparation for taking the tests of General Educational Development (GED). It was often loaded on the newest and most powerful desktop computers. However, a licensing agreement between the software manufacturer and the division of Adult Basic Education  forbade any access to the Internet or use of other software on these computers. How will these adults learn to use the Internet if access is forbidden in a publicly funded educational program?

Most of the nine programs reported some degree of technical support for their computer systems, especially in-service training, from their local school districts. The existence of computers does not, however, mean that they are used. The gap between practitioners willing to integrate technology into their teaching and those who shun computers still exists. One program director expressed regret for not "pushing" her staff enough and making them comfortable with computers or adequately preparing them to meet adult learners' increasing technology needs. Three program directors from well-established family literacy programs credited the lack of computer instructional creativity and usage to their adult educators' limited formal training in teaching methodologies, minimal computer literacy, and a high degree of reluctance to use the Internet in any capacity.

 The program directors were consistent in their view that regardless of age or literacy abilities, many parents perceive computer literacy as a key skill for getting "good jobs" and ensuring their children's school success. Parents appear to understand that their children need computers to access information, do homework, and develop job skills. Many parents believe that their families' economic plight further disadvantages their children in school because they
could not afford a home computer or Internet access. This is the "Matthew Effect" (Stanovich, 1986): the technologically rich get richer, and the technologically poor get poorer. The two cases that follow are examples of this phenomenon.

Recycled Technology

One rural site I visited was based in a renovated home with two bedrooms designated as computer labs. All of the computers were donated by local businesses. The first lab housed three long worktables holding a conglomerate of hardware. There were two color monitors among the older amber- or green-on-black screens. Most computers were in need of serious repair. Each computer was dedicated to a particular learning software package and only one was connected to a printer. The only computer connected to the Internet was in the teacher's office. When asked about his views on the educational applications of the Internet, he replied that he did not see any particular usefulness of  "cyberspace" for teaching adults or passing the GED.

This program's second computer lab was reserved for post-GED adult education students who continued to receive support while writing term papers for their courses at the local community college. This lab had a dot matrix printer and older desk jet printer connected to four computers. On the middle table sat three lap top computers. The screens of two laptops were propped up with sand-filled coffee cans. Surely, I thought, this is the far side of the digital divide.

This case may seem extreme, yet I found similar attitudes and arrangements in suburban, urban, and other rural sites. Much of the technology used in the programs was acquired secondhand from local schools and businesses. Of most concern, however, was the lack of any reference to computer-assisted instruction or the Internet in seven of the 12 evaluation reports I reviewed. The scenario seemed odd to me, since I have had a technologically enriched K-12 and university teaching background, yet it was familiar to many family literacy practitioners.

Navigating Obstacles

I visited a rural family literacy program in its fourth year of operation. The program director, a strong advocate of educational technology, included a computer lab in her first funding proposal and her staff regularly attended in-service computer sessions. She cited
two barriers to fully integrating technology with her family literacy program components. The first was the refusal of her adult basic education instructor to use computer-aided instruction software or allow her students to use a word processor to prepare for the GED. The teacher's position remained steadfast, despite attending annual computer and educational technology workshops sponsored by the state's literacy resource center. The site director responded to this problem by recruiting two volunteer faculty members and one student volunteer from a nearby university to work with parents outside of the GED class. She also shifted the adult learners' use of computers and the Internet to the parenting component of the program, which was taught by other staff and supported by the volunteers. 

The parenting component of family literacy programs helps adult learners to explore important subjects related to parenting and family life. This center's philosophy supported Internet technology as a means for parents to address many topics while also identifying and solving problems associated with parenting and life skills. To achieve this goal, all staff and interested adults at this center were provided with free e-mail accounts. Several staff members attended training sessions in web site design and development, and helped set up a web site for the program. The staff and parents worked together to update the web site quarterly.

Parents routinely researched parenting concerns, ranging from diagnosing and treating children's earaches to local employment opportunities. They regularly used search engines to locate information, write reports about their research, and then present their findings during weekly sessions of Parenting Time. Creative writing assignments became so popular that the program purchased a scanner for parents to use to illustrate books and add to family portfolios.

The second challenge was a directive by the Department of Health, Bureau of Licensure, which, in accordance with child safety policies, forced the removal of the computers from the infant/toddler rooms. Center-based family literacy programs encourage parents and their children to play in the preschool classroom, where everyone is comfortable with the setting, daily routines, and rules of behavior. The computers were previously used in this room during Parent and Child Together (PACT) time. The PACT component of a family literacy program is designed to provide parents with strategies to support children's learning in the home. During PACT time parents and their toddlers and preschool children played with interactive software games and other family-oriented learning activities. The director also noted that the colorful and animated screen savers provided babies with visual stimulation. Some parents were upset with the notion that the "authorities" declared the computers to be  a "bad thing for little children."

The program had also been donated a variety of recycled computers and software including old Apple IIe computers with Title I software on floppy disks. These reading readiness programs were loaned to the parents for home use. Parents received additional coaching on the computer during regular home visits by staff. After four years, only one of these computers was lost or destroyed. The one in question succumbed to insect infestation, not a computer virus.

The computer home loan program, although highly valued by parents, also revealed a serious, unforeseen problem. All of the parents wanted to borrow the computers. Typically, parents became excited by the possibility of owning a home computer and wanted to go out and buy one. Several families became involved in scams concocted by disreputable firms that sold poor-quality equipment with overpriced financing schemes. However, observed the director, this financial horror led to group lessons on financing during parenting group sessions. Later, and as a direct result of this experience, two single parents set and attained goals that included getting jobs and buying home computers.

Spanning the Gap

If the nation expects to address its citizens' literacy challenges, funders must make  family literacy programs' access to high-quality technology resources and appropriate professional development activities for program staff a high priority (National Literacy Summit, 2000). The digital divide - the gap between those who have access to new technologies and those who do not - is a significant civil rights, economics, and educational issue (NTIA, 1999a). The demographics of the technologically underserved population bears a strong resemblance to at-risk adults and their children served by family literacy programs. These adults are especially affected when they arrive at job interviews without computer skills. The problem also affects their children, who engage in schooling without the support of Internet information and word-processing capabilities. The divide is only increasing (NTIA, 1999a).

I observed digital learning environments that connected families with meaningful information and the motivation to learn how to become skilled readers. This motivation raised issues regarding appropriate use of an Internet service that is paid for by a literacy program but may be covertly accessed to advance an adult learner's personal agenda for learning. In two of the programs I visited, adult learners were encouraged to join their local libraries, which provided free Internet access. Recently, the state Adult Education and Literacy (AEL) division expanded its capacity for educational technology by contracting with an Internet-based study skills bank and providing each literacy site with more computers. One program director wrote a grant to have the library provide Internet search training and other technical assistance to her program's participants. According to The Children's Partnership (1999), much online content is designed for users with discretionary money to spend, and many Internet sites are written at reading levels too high for basic education learners. However, the desire to locate and understand information of choice is a powerful motivation. Whether an adult learner is motivated by a desktop publishing project involving family stories and personal greeting cards, or by practicing for a standardized achievement test, family literacy programs should and, with creativity, can match these personal learning goals with appropriate educational technology.

Family literacy programs use technology well when they use it to address learners' learning goals and interests. Family literacy practitioners and tutors need paid professional development opportunities in which to explore new instructional concepts about Internet learning, distance learning, and to develop creative methods of computer-assisted instruction. These staff development sessions should infuse technology with PACT, early childhood, adult and parenting content.

Family literacy practitioners understand that the education of children and their parents is interconnected. Connecting literacy learning with technology is a powerful means of breaking the intergenerational cycle of low educational levels and poverty. Family literacy programs have the programmatic structure to integrate educational technologies with play activities shared by parents and their preschool children. While many of the programs I evaluated are not yet doing so, they can help adults to use technology to achieve personal learning goals, develop communication skills, accommodate individual learning styles and disabilities, enhance self-esteem,  and  increase employability skills. Closing the digital divide is essential for age-appropriate educational success and economic self-sufficiency.


National Literacy Summit 2000 Steering Committee (2000). From the Margins to the Mainstream: An Action Agenda for Literacy. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

NTIA. (1999a). "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide. A Report on the Telecommunications and Information Technology Gap in America. July 1999." Washington, DC: National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.

NTIA (1999b). Fact Sheet: Boosting the Odds for Internet Use.

Stanovich, K. (1986). "Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy." Reading Research Quarterly, 21 (4),360-407.

The Children's Partnership (1999). "Online content for low-income and underserved Americans: The digital divide's new frontier." Santa Monica, CA: The Children's Partnership.

About the Author

Jeri A. Levesque is Associate Professor in the School of Education at Webster University in St. Louis. She evaluates numerous family literacy grant projects working closely with LIFT-Missouri, the state's literacy resource center. She serves as a statewide family literacy evaluation consultant for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Project Director for a Statewide Even Start Family Literacy Initiative.