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Students learn small steps make a huge difference in digital literacy

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One of the crowning experiences for seniors in Queens’ James L. Knight School of Communication is a capstone course that, among other things, places students in service learning opportunities throughout Charlotte.

For the last four years, these students have focused on digital and media literacy at 18 organizations, serving as teaching assistants in a six-week Digital Charlotte course. Called the Program Accelerator and funded by Google Fiber, the program supports organizations as they help members succeed in the digital world.

In the 2019 spring semester, students supported Digi-Bridge, the Charlotte Housing Authority, and Project LIFT.

“The six-week experience has been phenomenal not only for the students of this class but for me and my fellow teaching assistants as well,” said Maggie Rotunda of Greensboro, N.C., who graduated on May 4. “The reason it’s been so phenomenal is we’ve not only been able to watch people expand their knowledge on basic computer skills that can help them do a lot of functional things, not only from their homes but throughout society. But we’ve also seen a change in people’s motives, a change in people’s willingness to go beyond what they think they can do to that more confident step of ‘what I know I can do.’”

Maggie and fellow seniors Rhea Bhatia of Wake Forest, N.C., and Cameryn Smith of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., supported community instructor Dottie Stowe — who graduated herself from a similar Digital Charlotte program two years ago — in a Charlotte Housing Authority program at the Dillehay Courts community center.

Students found that they made a bigger difference than they expected.

“What I would advise people to do is just get started,” said Lucy Wichmann of Charleston, S.C., who supported a Project LIFT program at Allenbrook Elementary School. “Once you start the ball rolling it gets really easy, and especially with volunteering, a lot of people have a fear of not being able to make enough of a difference. So if you take that first step, you realize that it’s very accessible to make an impact on somebody’s life.”

Roughly one in four people in Mecklenburg County fall in the digital divide, and leveraging Knight School students against the problem is one of the things Digital Charlotte does best, said Bruce Clark, executive director.

“At the Net Inclusion conference hosted in Charlotte recently, there was heavy emphasis on digital literacy,” Clark said. “Actually training people how to use a computer. What we’re seeing is that — in the fourth year of the conference — the thought process is moving beyond the technology skills development to the broader implications of what it means to be connected in today’s world. Media literacy is one of those issues. For example, you see conversations around digital and health literacy. How do you understand the information that your doctor tells you and being able to validate that while you’re searching online for something. Or communicating with your family members and have the need to check something. We’re seeing media literacy woven into all the other issues that digital literacy looks to solve.”

One of the key successes of the Program Accelerator, Clark said, is the Latin American Coalition. In the last three years, Digital Charlotte partnered with the coalition on several initiatives in which people learned skills and earned laptop computers. The coalition has now evolved to the point where it can run digital and media literacy programs on its own, with full classes, using Digital Charlotte’s portable computer lab.

Maggie Rotunda said she is thankful about the impact of the experience.

“Just helping a little bit, just reaching out a little farther than your boundaries of what you’re used to, in your community of comfort and plenty of opportunity — by giving that to others it makes immense steps for other people,” Rotunda said. “In the process you learn a lot, too, so it’s just been phenomenal and an invaluable experience for all involved.”

Photo above: Margaret Jackson (tan and white jacket) in a recent digital literacy session at the Dillehay Courts community center with Queens students Maggie Rotunda (gray sweater), Cameryn Smith (red shirt), and Rhea Bhatia (blue hoodie).