San Antonio Digital Inclusion Summit

It’s no secret that we are living in a world where use of digital technology propels many of us through the day. In fact, I’m sure there are more computers in this room than there are people.  That may be a powerful illustration of our technological society but what is more telling is that you, the owners and operators of those computers, know when to use them (well mostly) and for what purpose.

This way of moving through the day is characterized in research about technology use as Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments (PS-TRE). It’s the ability to 1) access information through information communication technologies (ICTs) and/or 2) solving problems that exist because of the presence of ICT itself.

PS-TRE is relevant because fewer and fewer daily tasks can be accomplished through habitual action; essentially we are continuously figuring out how to do things because tasks that were once done offline or by hand are now more efficiently done with ICTs technology. For example: Balancing your checkbook, creating a household budget, writing to your mother, making a doctor appointment, communicating with your kid’s teachers, and shopping, to name a few.

This way of getting through the day can be a “bridge” that gives you access to efficiencies, resources, and information or a “barrier” because others can leverage technology as a resource better than you can. Well, as it turns out the US has a very large proportion of people who cannot do this well.

This was an important finding of the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills, which measured proficiency with literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology rich environments. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development administered it in 2012 to better understand how well 166,000 adults aged 16-65 in 24 countries use technology to solve problems and accomplish tasks.  Follow up surveys have been given to millennials, incarcerated adults and the elderly since then.  Numerous papers breaking down the results of this massive study can be found at  So, here’s the bad news that I’ve pulled from some of these papers.

Of the 5,000 adults who completed the PIAAC survey in the U.S. in 2012, 13% could not even take the PS-TRE, which was only available on the computer-based version of the assessment, because they had no computer experience or computer skills. Of those who did take it,

  • the U.S. had the highest percentage of participants scoring at the lowest proficiency level
  • 58% of Millennials tested at the low-skill level despite spending 35 hours per week using digital media.[1] And These scores were among the lowest reported among all participating countries.[2]
  • 30% of the participants who couldn’t take PSTRE reported being out of work and 41% reported educational attainment below a high school level,

Also troubling, a  2013 Pew Center Research on Internet use in the US showed that 13% of Americans do not ever go online and that one-third of these respondents don’t because they don’t see the Internet as relevant. Both this report and a 2016 Pew study about readiness to learn online show that adoption is linked to people’s socio-economic status, their race and ethnicity and their level of access to home broadband and smartphones.  Further, despite efforts to increase home access to broadband, the rate of smartphone adoption is outpacing new home internet connections. This is a problem because success in learning, the workplace, accomplishing daily tasks, and (for migrants, refugees and immigrants) sustaining connections to home language and community requires fluency with a range of ICTs, not just smartphones and social networking sites.

Based on my reading and my work as a researcher and adult ESL teacher, I think the task for us now is not to just make digital literacy training available – but to make sure training is quality education. I’m beginning to think that this work needs to be done well or not done at all. When learners go to a computer lab for help with skills and don’t get the help they need, their future investments in their own learning are negatively impacted, as is their sense of agency in digital world. They leave feeling like computers are not for them.

So – what does quality programming look like?  We’ll hear from several innovative practitioners next, but here are a few of my ideas:

1. I think quality instruction requires embedding digital literacy instruction into context that is already relevant to learners- so that within the learning experience they can see the potential for becoming proficient ICT users and build confidence required to make use of new skills and access on their own.


  • In schools, embedding instruction in to learning of other content like ESL or adult diploma classes
  • In OneStops and other Workforce Development agencies, embedding it into job search and application support
  • This has been done in other surprising places, too – in Oregon there are medical providers who offer digital literacy training for patients, which is embedded in instruction for how to access medical information online.

2. I think that online environments for learning are clearly laid out and easy to navigate. Focus group findings from my recent research showed elements of a site that can help novice teachers support low literacy students. These can be viewed at:  Here are some of the good resources that linked to there. The site includes a rubric for volunteers and teachers to use to vet these and any resource for usability with learners.

Additionally, the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment help you see where your learners are and what they need to work on:

3. My current research is making clear the importance of adequate support for learners engaged. Because learners show up with such a wide range of computer skills and experience AND other supporting proficiencies like shared language and literacy, models that provide self-paced, learner driven learning are likely to have more success than instructional programming were learners work in isolation or in large cohorts.

I think an ideal learning situation would be an open-access lab, stocked with culturally relevant and easy to navigate curricula and plenty of helpers to interact with and guide learners when they get stuck.

This, it seems, is the model that is gaining traction around the US. A recent Benton Foundation report on Broadband Adoption Initiatives shows this model becoming more popular.  There is a library of descriptive materials published by the Language Literacy Technology Research Center at PSU showing what this looks like.  The project is called Tutor-facilitated digital literacy acquisition in hard-to-serve populations.

In environments where classroom instruction is expected, programs should endeavor to provide embedded instruction and use of skills in support of other learning.

There is guidance on how to shape this work, again a colleague from Portland, Kathy Harris has written a useful guide called Integrating Digital Literacy into English Language Instruction

I have written a brief that provides suggestions for adding Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments. It provides some suggested activities and explanations.

No matter what your context or the sort of classes you offer, be sure you have adequate support for your learners and that they feel like the materials and activities are meant for them. The job is to help people become resilient to the rapid change that characterizes use of ICTs.


Tyton Partners authored two papers that might inform developers as they work to build learning content for computer newcomers. Here are papers available in their Learning for Life series. 



[1] Goodman, Sands, and Coley (2015). America’s skills challenge: Millennials and the future. ETS.

[2] Time for the U.S. to Reskill? (2013). OECD.