Welcoming Computer Beginners to an All-Virtual World - Byte Back

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Welcoming Computer Beginners to an All-Virtual World

5 students and 1 instructor smile at the camera on Zoom
Author: Yvette Scorse
Published: August 4, 2020

During COVID-19, Digital Literacy Is More Urgent But Also More Challenging to Offer – Here’s How Byte Back Did It

How do you take an online course when you don’t know how to get online yet? This was the puzzle presented to Byte Back staff at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Digital literacy has been a need-to-have for years, but since COVID-19, it’s more obvious than ever that ALL adults should have the opportunity to participate in a digital society.

In Computer Foundations courses, students learn the fundamentals – from turning on a computer and typing to using email functions, software, and folders. These are essential skills that about 33.5 million American adults still need to acquire.

Since Byte Back began offering beginner computer classes decades ago, the training has been all in person. During the pandemic, the world has changed. And Byte Back has adapted along with it, intent on providing inclusive tech education.

The Unique Barriers for Beginner Students

When Byte Back closed in-person classes and launched virtual Zoom classrooms in March, the organization’s leadership put Computer Foundations courses on hold. There were barriers to offering these courses online that couldn’t be figured out in just two or three days. When beginner students start:

  • 45% don’t have home internet, and 41% don’t have a home laptop or desktop computer. These rates are higher than for Byte Back’s certification students.
  • Many students don’t yet have the computer skills needed to get on Zoom
  • They need hands-on experience and practice in virtual classrooms that mimics the personalized attention they got in real-life classrooms.

Inclusion Is the Only Option for Byte Back

One of Byte Back’s unique services is to meet students where they are, to offer a pathway up – from beginning tech skills to certifications and tech careers – so leaving these students behind was not an option. One of the organization’s values is having a culture of YES, so saying, “No, this isn’t possible” also wasn’t in the staff’s vocabulary.

Byte Back’s Baltimore site was the first to tackle these challenges for beginner students.

“I appreciate the fact that Byte Back allows you to start from the beginning and work your way up to the IT track or Microsoft Office track,” says Crystal DeVaughn, a student who recently completed a virtual Computer Foundations course.

Brittany Singleton, education coordinator in Baltimore, was the first to implement an on-the-ground plan to tackle those barriers. Since April, Brittany and the Baltimore team have helped 36 Baltimore residents start Computer Foundations courses from home. In DC, 22 students are now enrolled in these beginner courses.

Step 1: Getting Online

Brittany’s main hurdles: Figure out how to help students get a computer, turn it on, connect to the internet, launch Zoom, and use controls, like video and microphone. She starts two to three weeks before class launch date to do this.

Sometimes a student doesn’t have a camera, or their internet drops out. In those cases, Byte Back loans out laptops, awards students with donated computers, and/or helps them connect to low-cost or free internet options like Comcast’s Internet Essentials or provides them with a hotspot.

Since moving to virtual learning in mid-March, Byte Back has distributed 69 laptops or internet jetpacks to students in need in Baltimore and DC.

“I appreciate how accommodating Byte Back is. I had courses I had to pay a lot of money for and the curriculum wasn’t as good, and the instructor was even worse. I give kudos to Byte Back on picking well,” says Carmelitta Robinson. She’s one of the Computer Foundations students who received a loaner laptop and got a desktop computer to keep, thanks to a donation from Access Receivables Management.

Step 2: Getting on Zoom

Some students can already access email and open Zoom links, and others need help. With Baltimore Site Director Chrissie Powell, she launched a new personalized service for beginners – Zoom Connectivity Sessions. Brittany prepares each new student for class to ensure that instructors can start teaching the planned curriculum on day one instead of troubleshooting individual connectivity issues.

“I don’t want anyone to be in a situation when they’re in a class and they’re not prepared. I don’t want them to feel panicked because they don’t have a connection or can’t find their camera or can’t login,” Brittany says. “If you can see and hear everyone, that’s a good start.”

Usually getting to that point starts on the phone. Brittany walks students through how to launch Zoom and find their mic. She also orients them to Zoom features – muting yourself, changing your name, showing you camera, sharing your screen, and zoom etiquette they practice in class and in professional settings.

Though the process has its challenges, Brittany enjoys experiencing those “Aha” moments with new students – the second their mic clicks on or they find the video button, or when they successfully login with their new laptop.

Brittany also keeps the mood light, knowing that getting acquainted with new technology can be frustrating. “Once you got it, you have it, you’re a professional,” she says to guide new students. “You can now do something a lot of people can’t do. That’s a new skill for you,” she tells them.

Step 3: Gaining Essential Digital Skills

Craig Addison is a Byte Back Baltimore instructor about to start teaching his fourth virtual Computer Foundations course in August. 93% of his virtual Computer Foundations students have passed.

“There are no dumb questions [in his class], you’re in a safe space” says Craig’s student Carmelitta. “These are all transferrable skills we learn in this beginner class. Anything we learn is invaluable.” There’s even an added bonus from having class at home – she can practice outside of class hours. “Practice is everything,” Carmelitta says.

“All the instructors are really diligent,” says Masooma Mohiuddin, another student in the class. “They were readily available for us whenever we needed help. We really thoroughly enjoyed working and learning a lot,” she said on the final day of class July 23.

Craig was happy to report at the end of the class that Masooma, Carmelitta, and Crystal all passed the Computer Foundations course.

To find out about Computer Foundations and sign up, click here.

To support staff time, curriculum adaption, home laptop access, hotspots, Zoom Connection Sessions, and more virtual classroom necessities, become a Byte Backer.

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