The ALA/FCC/Digital Corps Debacle

In the FCC/ALA/Digital Corps debacle unfolds before my very eyes, allow me to sum up as quickly as I can before I make my points.

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times wrote an article called Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era. The quote that caused a thousand tweets to sail:

The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

Separately, the commission will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.

This was seen as an affront to Fran Bullington who wrote a blog post entitled, “Calling School Librarians to Action! Another Attempt to Undermine Our Jobs”. Pull quotes:

Chairman Julius Genachowski was quoted in the article.  He recognizes the importance of digital literacy, but he is ill-informed. He does not know that there are already trained professionals in many schools who work, against great odds at times, to train our students and who volunteer to teach parents these skills.

[…]

Although I applaud the intent of teaching digital literacy skills to our students, I question the expenditure of these funds.  Why not instead funnel these funds into school library programs to allow trained, certified professionals to teach the skills?

Joyce Valenza reposted Fran’s post to her blog on School Library Journal. The outrage expands and people are encouraged to contact the FCC about this issue. Fran updates her blog with these developments, noting that the ALA put out a short District Dispatch reacting to the article. The dispatch outlines the ALA’s involvement with the National Broadband Plan.

Yesterday, The Digital Shift covered the article and the fallout as well as a publishing a reaction from the FCC regarding the outrage. (“Proposed ‘Digital Literacy Corps’ will not Usurp School Librarians’ Role, Explains FCC”)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a message for school librarians angered over a recent New York Times story that mentions the creation of a “digital literacy corps”: no one is trying to usurp their jobs.

“It’s not targeted at teaching kids in schools,” says Josh Gottheimer, FCC’s senior counselor to the chairman, about the proposed $200 million federal plan for the creation of a digital literacy program. “It’s really about families and others in the community. We’re not trying to duplicate but to close the gap for others.”

Buffy Hamilton write a reaction piece to that article and posts it on her blog. (“Dear FCC and ALA: Do You Really Not Get It?”) Two of her points revolve around why the FCC is considering the creating digital literacy trainers when there is infrastructure in place right now that could benefit from additional funding.

    • The concerns raised by school librarians was never about thinking our jobs were being “usurped.” Instead, we questioned why the FCC would not utilize an existing corps (school librarians) and expand it at a time in which we are being hacked down left and right as public schools grapples with budget cuts.   Why should children be asked to stay after school to learn an essential literacy in isolation?
    • Our public librarians are also an existing [corps] of digital literacy experts. Again, why not provide funding to grow their staff and services to build upon their existing efforts to work with learners of ALL ages?  Or to help public and school libraries develop partnerships to do community outreach to parents?

A friend on Twitter pointed out this comment to Buffy’s post:

Ann Ewbank

June 12, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Hi Buffy,
I serve on Molly Raphael’s School Library Task Force. Last week, the task force had a discussion about this issue. Lynne Bradley, director of the Office of Government Relations at ALA Washington, assured the Task Force that the office has been working on this issue for several years. She also explained that the tactics that some bloggers seem to be advocating might be damaging and unravel years of ALA’s advocacy work. In this situation I think it is wise to trust the staff at ALA Washington. (This is my opinion and I am not speaking on behalf of ALA or the Task Force)

The plot, as they say, thickens. Bobbi Newman, a member of the ALA Digital Literacy Task Force, writes a response to Buffy as well as others in her blog post, “Don’t Write Off ALA’s Work on Digital Literacy and the FCC Before Reading This” She takes great pains to show how the ALA has been engaged with the FCC throughout the process, that the digital literacy corps is an currently unfunded program, and that advocacy doesn’t always equal victory in the realm of politics and policy.

Ok, I think that’s everything.

***

Before I offer my comments, that same Twitter friend also pointed me towards Chapter 9.3 “Adoption and Utilization” of the National Broadband Plan. This is the section that maps out the creation of a Digital Literacy Corps as well as where libraries fit into the equation. It makes five recommendations:

  • Congress should consider providing additional public funds to create a Digital Literacy Corps to conduct training and outreach in non-adopting communities.
  • Congress, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should commit to increase the capacity of institutions that act as partners in building the digital literacy skills of people within local communities.
  • Congress should consider providing additional public funds to IMLS to improve connectivity, enhance hardware and train personnel of libraries and other community-based organizations (CBOs).
  • OMB consulting with IMLS should develop guidelines to ensure that librarians and CBOs have the training they need to help patrons use next-generation e-government applications.
  • Congress should consider funding an Online Digital Literacy Portal.

(Emphasis mine.)

You really should read through it, but for the lazy, I’ll get to a few key points. First, the Digital Literacy Corps has a very open and flexible mandate; they are Americorps for digital literacy. They want to reach the poorest of the poor, the most rural, and the most isolated with the possibility of using schools as bases of operation, not as a replacement for school librarians. Hell, even the model example at the end of their passage talks about a volunteer group that works with the Chicago Public Library. There is an imagined partnership in place and it involves supplementing current library computer instruction.

Second, there is an emphasis on utilizing libraries because of their outreach to underserved communities, computer availability, and trained staff. However, they make note about the inadequacies and shortages of computers in a significant number of libraries around the country. The report goes on to discuss providing funding to bolster these technology gaps.

What is seen as a single prong effort is actually two: the creation of a digital literacy corps to go into communities that lack computer instruction classes (because there are some libraries that do not offer it) and supporting digital literacy partners (read: public libraries) with additional funding to update/purchase computers as well as provide training for staff.

With this last bit of information in mind, I have a few comments.

I feel that the omission of this part of the National Broadband Plan in the New York Times article put this whole thing into motion. It focused on the creation of the volunteer corps and left out the part about supporting libraries as part of the digital literacy initiative. I don’t think this issue would have evolved the way it did without that important piece of information. However, it painted an image of sending volunteers to schools to teach digital literacy during a time when school librarians are being cut. It is hardly a wonder why school librarians wouldn’t be upset and looking to rattle some cages.

The next misstep in this debacle comes from the ALA in failing to point out this little tidbit (the whole 9.3 section references ALA submitted material throughout, you would have thought they might have noticed their works being cited) as well as failure to effectively communicate with its members. The District Dispatch tells a fabulous story about how the ALA is working with the FCC and all the things they’ve done, but doesn’t set out why school librarians are not having their jobs usurped. To be cruel but honest, they could have pointed out that the focus of the Digital Literacy Corps is not aimed at school aged children, but adults who lack computer skills. Schools are just mentioned in passing as a possible base of operations for these volunteers to use. School libraries, the ALA could have said, are part of another advocacy agenda. In any event, there is no statement about the continued importance of school libraries and what ALA is doing for those kinds of libraries in the broad view.

Instead, there are reports of ALA reaching out to bloggers as well as statements coming from within ALA that the efforts of outraged school libraries might hurt the FCC/ALA relationship. As to the former, I’m not sure what that means nor what they are telling those people to ‘quell concerns’. The silence from both the organization and the bloggers in question has me wondering what transpired. As to the latter, I can only speculate that there wouldn’t be an outrage like this if the ALA had done a better job of reassurance to the school librarian membership as to where they fit in the organization’s advocacy agenda. Surely this would have been a better move than the “stop talking to the FCC and trust us” line that school librarians felt like they were fed.

In the end, as the movie lines goes, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Within this cacophony of tweets and blog posts, there is a fundamental breakdown of communication between the ALA and its membership. In emphasizing their role with the FCC, the ALA did not address the basic worries of the school librarian membership and assure them of their place in the overall advocacy agenda. No one wants to hear how awesome the organization is when they aren’t sure where they stand in it. A statement of clarification is sorely needed here to bring things back into focus.

To be fair, I think some school librarians jumped the gun by emailing the head of the FCC over their comments. It’s a knee jerk reaction to an unfortunate article over an issue that is important enough to warrant some further research or inquiries to state associations and/or the ALA. It was the “’Get her!’ That was your whole plan, huh, ‘get her.’” play when you really need to line up something a bit more substantial when going after a federal regulatory body. This is not to say that school librarians should step aside and let the ALA handle it; they should be pressuring the association for results under the scrutiny level of “HURRY UP” and “NOW”.  It’s when you feel that the larger organization with the lobbyists and Washington presence didn’t do enough; that’s when you charge once more into the breech and take the campaign to the people.

I have a feeling this should make for an interesting annual conference coming up. I will be interested to see how the situation proceeds from here.

UPDATE: One other point I forgot to mention in writing this in the wee hours of last night is that the librarian unemployment glut could be eased or solved by hiring those unemployed librarians as part of the Digital Literacy Corps. If ALA wanted to push any angle with the FCC, it should be that one.

Re: What I Love Doing

There’s one line in Jessamyn West’s commencement speech to the Goddard College’s Masters in Individualized Studies Program that popped out at me when I read it.

- what I love doing

(“I teach email to old people… no seriously it’s the best thing there is”)

In reflecting on the line, I was faced with a question: how many librarians who talk and present about web 2.0, mobile interfaces, and all other manner of technology in the library teach a basic computer class? The kind of basic computer class that starts off with concepts like “this is a mouse, this is a keyboard”. How many librarians that sit on technology or web panels stand in a computer lab and walk people through the basics?

I’m not just talking about teaching seniors here. I’ve taught this basic class to people who are just a bit older than I am (late 30’s, if you must know). It’s not that people who didn’t grow up with the technology or some other age/generation based explanation; these are people who just never made it a priority in their lives to have a computer or use one. Now, with employment applications going online or wanting to stay in contact with family members far away, they are looking to learning how.

Don’t interpret this as a statement that those who do not teach basic computers cannot make any commentary when it comes to library technology. It’s not meant to be nor should it be interpreted as one. I just believe that teaching a basic computer class has changed the way I approach the topic. When you are teaching such a class, your entire vocabulary changes as you find approachable and non-technical jargon ways of describing the computer and its operation. The ultimate lesson I try to impart to my students is to be adventurous, be curious, and don’t worry about clicking on “the wrong thing” because honestly you really can’t hurt the computer. There is so much agony raveled around “messing up the machine” that people forget that for the same price as replacing all four tires on a car you can buy two or three computers.

Not that I would encourage that either but you get the point.

For the scientist in me, there have been some very interesting observable moments. People touching the screen on the computer like an iPad or ATM screen to try to make it work. One individual who asked if they had to come to the library to get retrieve their email. And, my favorite, people picking up the mouse and try to use it by waving it around. (It’s my favorite because one of my graduate school professors related a story about this happening. I believed him, but I still wanted to see it for myself. And, oh boy, I have.) Most are actions and behaviors influenced by the other technology in their lives, but they are all genuine in their origin.

For myself, it is rewarding when you see people start to understand what they are looking at, to be less apprehensive about using the mouse or the keyboard, and to make that connection in their mind that they can do this. That’s the moment I help them towards and why I love to teach basic computer classes at the library.

Do you teach a basic computer class at your library? Or any computer class, for that matter? What’s your experience like?