Digital Divide Bars Some from Re-Entering School

In Northern California, getting technology into the hands of students young and old is a priority.

by Kirk Barron, Appeal-Democrat, Marysville, Calif. / November 10, 2015

(TNS) -- When Alice Johnson, after decades away from school, decided to enroll in Yuba College to pursue a degree in history, she discovered a lot has changed.

Johnson, who turns 66 on Sunday, had little interest or use for computers before returning to school, but she discovered getting through a college class without using one is nearly impossible.

"I found out everything is done online and all papers have to be typed. No handwritten papers accepted," she said.

She tried signing up for a computer literacy course through the college's Community Education program, but not enough students enrolled so it was canceled, Johnson said.

Eventually, Johnson was able to get 10 hours of tutoring through the college, and she found another computer literacy class for students with disabilities that she will try to sign up for next semester, if she qualifies.

"Maybe I just should have been more into computers before, but I hope the children learn that because if you don't, you're outside of the game," Johnson said. The One Stop offices of Yuba and Sutter County offer computer literacy classes and have resources online, but in Johnson's case her class schedule at the college conflicted with the times offered.

Reaching students like Johnson is a challenge, said instructional associate professor Tony Jow, who helps run the College Success Center in the Yuba College Library. The center serves nearly 1,000 students a semester and has about 55 student tutors, but is often at capacity and cannot provide in-depth, hands-on computer literacy instruction.

"We have roving tutors who help with specific software questions," Jow said. "And I can sit down and show them how to format a paper, but we can't spend three hours with them."

The library also has a larger lab, without tutors and instructors nearby to help out, where students can do homework if they do not have a computer, or have time between classes.

Computer proficiency is important at the college level because professors post documents, study guides and quizzes online, and the college uses a modern integrated system where students can manage their courses and financial aid, Jow said.

Access for all

Jargon of the computer age is second nature to many, but the concept of right-clicking or finding an icon on a desktop is not always intuitive for the uninitiated.

Getting technology into the hands of students at a young age is a high priority, and not just because mandated standardized tests are done on the computer now, said Bryan Williams, director of technology at Marysville Joint Unified School District.

"Computers are everywhere. If you take your car in for an oil change, the mechanic is going to be using one," Williams said. "We want to make sure our students are prepared to succeed in the work force and in higher education."

The district's goal is to have a computer device for every student so everyone who goes through the school system is computer literate when they graduate, whether or not they have access at home, Williams said.

Many teachers assign homework that must be done online, which can be an issue for those without a computer or Internet access. However, each school in the district has computers available for student use before and after school hours, Williams said.

Many of the software programs used by the school can be accessed on smartphones, which expands the reach to even more students, he said.

"We really haven't had a problem where we haven't been able to find a way to make it work," Williams said. "We have multiple options so he or she has everything they need to get the work done."

Public libraries are another source for computer access, however, the number of students using that service has dwindled in recent years, said Steve Lim, reference librarian at the Sutter County Library.

The library computers meter users to 30-minute chunks, but if no one is waiting that limit can be bypassed up to a total of 3 hours a day, Lim said.

"We used to have more students come in to use computers, and we have a teen area open after school that has (Microsoft) Word and that type of thing, but it's mainly adults who come in and use it now," Lim said.

©2015 the Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.