Final project report: computers and learning at the Providence Public Library

Inquiry Project final report

Amanda hathaway, Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative

I have been teaching the computer component of English as a Second Language classes for a year and a half. I teach through the Providence Public Library's Family Literacy Initiative Program. This spring, I have been teaching computer classes at three different branches in the city of Providence: Knight Memorial, Washington Park, and Mt Pleasant. The classes at these libraries all take different shapes. I teach at Knight Memorial Library on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Each class is 1-1/2 hours long and I usually work with two different small groups each night. In the Family Literacy Program we work with adults who are at different levels in their English study. The majority of the learners are closer to a beginner level. At Knight Memorial, we rotate the learners on the computers in small groups of about five students. Unique to this branch, we have our own computers that have access to the Internet and are in a separate area than the public library. Most students are native Spanish speakers. At Washington Park, I worked within a different structure. There, I consistently worked with a small group of women, all of whom are at a beginning level of English. I was their main teacher as well as their computer teacher. At this branch, we tried to use the computers once a week. At Mt Pleasant, the program only has access to the computers one time per week. Given that we had about 25 students in the program, they were not able to use the computers more than once a month. We found this situation problematic, and ultimately had to put computer use on hold until we can find a way to have more frequent computer use. This background information is important to my report because of the different formats in each class. My role as the computer coordinator was different at each branch, and the setup for the learners varied from class to class as well. In this report, I will be describing different approaches and methods I used to incorporate learner driven computer lessons in our classes. I will also discuss different strategies I tried in order to help the learners become more independent computer users.

In the fall of 2001, I tried some new methods of teaching the computers in two different classes I was working with at the time. I believed that focusing on the Internet would be exciting for the learners and help them to access information that might be useful to them in their daily lives. I structured lessons around learning basic computer skills by putting them to use reading an online newspaper, checking the weather, or opening a free e-mail account. Through this cycle, both the learners and I became excited about the possibilities of technology in our class, and I felt that I was making progress especially with beginners in terms of building important computer skills. However, I found it very challenging to teach both English and computer skills at the same time and found myself translating into Spanish more often than not when explaining an important computer concept. This is where I began my thoughts about the Inquiry Project last fall. I started to think about how I could teach the computer component entirely in English. After doing many exercises in the project like the Critical Incident journal and probing through different thoughts and "itches," I recognized that I needed to get more specific. What was it about my work that I really wanted to delve into and explore? I feel that my role as a teacher is to be a guide, and assist learners in determining what it is that they specifically want to learn and helping them to do so. I also believe that technology is an important tool, not only educationally, but also as a resource for information that could assist people in their daily lives. What I really wanted to focus on was how I could do my job, combining these two ideas that I believed in my head. I decided to focus my project around assisting learners in incorporating computer use into their lives in a way that is meaningful and useful to them. Ultimately, I thought that the only way learners would want to continue to use the computers, was if it had a purpose for them. My question then became: What happens when students are exposed to useful computer concepts that encourage independent computer use?

I began putting my project to work in January of this year. We began new classes at all of the branches and it was a good time to start fresh with new ideas. I started each class with an introduction to the computers and brainstormed different ways that the computer could be useful in each group. I then gave surveys to all of the learners. I used different surveys for different levels. In the surveys, I asked the learners identify which computer skills are most and least important to ascertain in their pursuit of learning English. In the beginner group, I asked the learners to name their first, second, and third choice from a list of computer skills such as typing, using the Internet, word processing, e-mail, and English language software. In the more advanced groups, I asked the learners to rate a longer list of skills from most important to least important. In all of the groups we tallied the results and came to a consensus about what we wanted to focus on for the cycle. In larger groups, we were able to split up in order to group ourselves according to our skill preferences. Many learners expressed interest in different skills based on a need that they had in their life. For example, some students wanted to learn Microsoft Word and Office skills in order to assist their children with their homework. Others wanted to open e-mail accounts so that they could write to their families who were living in their native countries. For my own purposes, I also surveyed the students about their previous computer experience, asking them for the following information:

  • Do you have a computer at home?
  • Do you come to the library to use the public computers? Why or why not?
  • Do you feel comfortable using the computer alone?
  • Do you have an e-mail account?
  • Do your children use the computer?
  • I felt that these questions were important in understanding what the experiences of the learners were and how their lives were intersecting with technology in settings outside of our classes. I found that most students did not own computers at home, although many were anxious to purchase them in the near future. Many learners were not accessing the public computers at the library when we were not in class. Additionally, most learners did not feel comfortable using the computers alone. About half of the students did have free e-mail accounts, many we had set up during the fall cycle. All parents with children in the school system noted that their children use the computer regularly at school. This information was helpful to me in assessing where many of the learners were, and understanding what their interests were for using the computers.

    Because I work with so many different small groups, we had a lot of different focuses during the spring cycle. One group wanted to focus solely on Microsoft Word, others wanted to use English Interactive software and one group used the computer time as an open lab. I discovered different trends and ideas in each experience. I collected data on each method by keeping a journal and getting a lot of verbal feedback from students. I also tried to write sample cards. The point of the sample cards for me was to attempt to determine what lessons and methods were connecting with the learners. After different lessons I would take notes in the following categories: participation, enthusiasm about the lessons, retention of previous skills, the structure of the lesson (was it all on the computer? Was their a handout?), were the learners teaching each other, and is the lesson applicable.

    I found it difficult to write accurate observations in each category, but did my best to keep a record of how the lessons were going. In one of the groups, we started the cycle learning basic Microsoft Word skills and continued using word for almost three more months. This particular group was interesting to study because although their computer skill level was low, their English level was more advanced. In this way, it was easier to explain the computer concepts and also gather feedback from them. We decided that the best way to start using Microsoft Word was for letter writing purposes. I had all of the learners in the group write a letter in English to someone in their country. This way they were utilizing the English language, but also writing a letter in which they would have plenty to write about. I asked them to include details about their lives in the United States. The letter activity was able to continue for many lessons as they learned to save, print, edit, copy, cut and paste. The repetition of the lesson was important in the comfort level that the students had with the computers. Each time that it was their group's turn on the computer, they would find their floppy disk, put it in the computer, and pick up where they had left off from the last time. It was easy to gather data from them that they found the lesson applicable to their lives and they were always eager to help each other learn something new. Perhaps because they were more advanced English students, the data collection went a lot smoother.

    In other groups I tried various activities. One group focuses primarily on English software. The program allowed them to choose a topic, like Money or Travel and learn new words but listening and repeating into a microphone. I think that the learners found this helpful because it was clear that their focus was on English. I don't think it was an effective means of assisting them in becoming independent computer users. I feel though, that because they identified the program as a way for them to improve their English that it was a good choice for their group.

    In the group at Washington Park, I was their regular English teacher as well as their computer teacher. This was a different role for me, as I am used to working with different groups all the time for short periods of time, rather than one group in particular. I felt that this setup was very interesting for my Inquiry project because I really knew the women in my group well and was able to recognize their learning styles and apply them to studying the computer. It was in this group that we mostly did "open labs" where each student could focus on one computer concept of their choice. Students chose to focus on Word, e-mail and Interactive English again. I found this method to have both positive and negative attributes. The positive side was that the lessons were truly learner driven. They were able to choose whatever it was they wanted to learn on the computer. The negative side is that we didn't really have "lessons" about the computer but rather one-on-one instruction that was more spontaneous than well thought through. In collecting data, it was helpful for me to compare and contrast this group with more traditional groups of learners that all studied the same thing at one time. In some ways, the women in this group became more independent, because they were working on their own projects and were sometimes forced to figure things out alone.

    The data that I found most difficult to collect was whether or not the learners would try to use the computers for their own purposes outside of class. Some students clearly demonstrated that this was their preference and would come early to class and check e-mail or stay late. Others expressed interest in buying a computer. However, it was often difficult to elicit verbal feedback about what was working and where the trouble spots were.

    Because I worked in many different settings with learners of different levels, it was difficult to analyze the data in a way that lead to specific conclusions. I did find that repetition on the computer was helpful in building computer skills that were lasting and that working from students ideas (for example, helping them e-mail a relative whose address they have) increased their retention levels. It was interesting to compare and contrast the open lab method where students could choose their own work, with a more systemic lesson plan that followed more of a curriculum. I think that there are successes and challenges in both of the strategies.

    Overall, I found that the issue of applicability of computer skills to learners' lives is something that I am still struggling with in my classes. It is difficult to balance the role of teacher as a resource where the learner is determining the content of the class, while still trying out new ideas and discovering what works best with different groups. Because many students have not used computers in their lives before enrolling in our course, it is difficult for them to be driving their computer experience. I think that the computer component is an important part of our literacy program. This is something that I learned through the project as I watched learners become engaged in English through the computer, or excited about learning a new skill that could be helpful in another aspect of their life. Although the computer component is often something added as an extra part of an English class, I think it is important to continue struggling with how to integrate technology into second language education.

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