Chapter 4: Digital Literacy Training

Connecting for Good

For most of us, computer and internet user skills—the skills that constitute basic digital literacy—have been “learned by doing,” literally through years of practice. Adults who’ve fallen behind the general population’s digital-learning curve and now want to catch up often need some help to get started.

Overcoming the discomfort barrier through some form of introductory learning assistance—whether through group classes or one-on-one help—is one of the most common forms of digital inclusion work.

“Digital literacy” and “digital literacy training” mean many things to many people, from smartphone apps and Facebook for beginners to advanced coding and network management for career seekers. Local digital inclusion programs operate training programs that run the gamut of these topics.

On one level, this is a pretty simple process. Students come to a place where computing devices are sitting on desks or tables, usually with internet access; an instructor conducts a series of “how-to” lessons through presentations and demonstrations; the students learn and practice what the instructor shows them. Often the classes conclude with some kind of assessment or test of each student’s new skills.

As simple as this process seems, there are many variations in the real world. Depending on the curriculum and other factors, a “basic computer training” course may be as short as four or five hours or as long as 30 or 40. The instructor might be a credentialed professional, an enthusiastic community volunteer or something in between; she might be working with a full classroom of students or one-on-one. The student assessment could be a simple review and a handshake or a formal examination leading to an introductory skills certification, such as Northstar or IC3.

Planning Your Digital Literacy Training Program: A Checklist

Want to set up a community training program to help individuals (usually but not always adults) learn the basic skills of computer and internet use?

You’ll have to come up with appropriate answers for a few simple but important planning questions. Here’s a checklist:

Where will your training happen?

  • Can you use an existing computer lab or classroom with devices and internet already in place?
    • How many seats does it have, and how many hours can you monopolize it?
    • Can the owners of the space guarantee your use of the space indefinitely, or do they expect to need the space for another purpose at a point in the future?
  • Have you identified the space you will need for the computer lab? Will the space meet your needs?
    • Is the space the right size for your needs?
    • How good is the wiring, and are there sufficient outlets for the equipment you intend to bring in?
    • Does it have existing internet service, or if not, is there internet access that could handle a full lab of computers at a cost you can afford?
    • Can your prospective students get to it? Is it handicapped-accessible? What's the bus and parking situation?
    • Is it a place your prospective students will feel welcome?
  • What equipment will you need, and how can you acquire it most economically?
    • Do you need workstations, or will laptops and folding tables work?
    • Is there a local refurbisher or a supportive business that will provide the computers and peripherals you need at little or no cost? (Note: For training purposes, there’s not much difference between a new laptop and a good refurbished business-class laptop from four or five years ago.)
  • If you need to find training space, ask yourself all the same questions in addition to the big one: What will this space cost, and how will the program cover that cost?

Who are you hoping to train?

  • Seniors? Young mothers? Jobseekers from the local workforce office? Public housing tenants? Adult Education students working on their GED or ESL credentials or job skill certifications? Just any neighbors who walk in?
  • What’s your plan for getting them into your classes? It’s important to be really specific and thoughtful about this at the beginning, especially if you’re going to have fixed costs like rent, utilities and internet—not to mention staff. Empty classes aren’t a good use of your limited resources nor are they good for fundraising. Do you have a waiting list already? Partner organizations committed to recruit? An incentive like free computers to help bring people in?

Who will do the training?

  • Do you have existing staff or volunteers who are willing and able? Are they qualified to teach the material you plan to cover and the people you want to serve? Do you expect to have special language needs, and are they covered? If there’s a certification you want to prepare your students for, have your prospective instructors passed the test?
  • If you need to hire one or more instructors to meet these needs, do you have any good prospects? Do you expect to hire them as employees or contractors? How does this fit with your organization’s employment policies and management capability?

What are you planning to teach

Basic digital literacy training generally includes at least the following elements:

  • Components of a computer
  • Mouse and keyboard use as well as usually some keyboarding
  • Using an internet browser
  • Creating and using an email account
  • Basics of word processing
  • Privacy, security and data protection
  • Finding trusted sources for additional learning

Additional digital literacy education can center on specific applications (e.g., word processing, spreadsheets, graphics), specific domains of interest (e.g., health care or financial management) or development of job skills (e.g., warehouse management, spreadsheets) and certifications (e.g., hardware or software). Note that these may impose software and/or hardware requirements on your training lab.

Often, people seeking digital literacy are interested in solving a particular problem. Others may approach it from a more general desire to learn what computers and the internet are all about. In the first case, this motivation may be used to provide the student with general skills to address their immediate need as well as further explorations of areas of interest. In the second, it can be useful to identify specific applications that capture their interest to provide a sense of accomplishment as they acquire these skills.

If your program has a specific focus based on the community needs, you might want to align your curriculum with an appropriate partner or even arrange a training partnership. If your goal is promoting skills for employment, for example, it can be a good idea to reach out to local workforce agencies to help align your training with the needs of area employers.

How are you going to pay for it?

The core costs of setting up and operating a basic computer training center and providing a regular schedule of classes don't have to be outrageous, but they're real and must be planned for.

Chapter 8 discusses some aspects of fundraising strategy, including partnerships and using data to document results and tell your story.

For purposes of this planning checklist, it is important to develop a specific minimum budget that will cover at least the following costs for your planning period.

Expense Cash In-kind or Donated
Occupancy (rent, utilities, liability insurance)
Hardware and software: Acquisition and maintenance
Printer supplies
Training staff if paid (payroll or contractual)
Any financial support for volunteers, e.g., transportation

If a particular cost is provided in-kind or donated, estimate the value and put it in the budget’ll want to count it as a matching contribution to show to potential funders.

How will you teach?

Effective approaches to teaching digital literacy range from highly structured classroom training to one-on-one “on-request” assistance, and from certified professional instruction to tutoring by community volunteers. Your program’s personnel needs will depend on the approach you adopt, but in turn, that approach may depend on the resources you find available as well as the needs of your community.

Here’s a partial list of approaches adopted by various digital literacy programs, with examples:

Formal classes with a paid professional instructor

For a program whose sponsor is able to hire and manage employees or contractors, this is the most efficient approach. A paid instructor can be expected to show up reliably, bring a professional level of skills and knowledge, follow a systematic teaching plan, keep good records and so on. Of course it’s also the most expensive approach and imposes an ongoing fundraising obligation on your leaders and other staff, if any. If you don’t know how you’ll sustain a paid-staff model, it’s probably not a good idea to start with it.

Some digital inclusion programs have had success with “staffing” their classes with national service volunteers, e.g., Americorps. This is less expensive (per person) than ordinary staffing, but it’s not cost-free—it often involves matching funds, for example—and it means taking on significant planning and support duties. Also, individual national service participants are usually available for a year or less, so inexperience is built into this approach.

Formal classes with volunteer instructors or support

Don’t underestimate the possibility of finding very effective volunteer teachers within your community or at local businesses, colleges or partner organizations. Maybe you’re one of them! Running a program with volunteers is usually the most financially sustainable approach, but it involves challenges that may be more difficult than fundraising.

To start with, organizations that rely on volunteers often find they need paid staff to find, recruit, train and manage them. A full-time volunteer is rare, so if you’re offering multiple classes you’ll probably need not one but several instructors and ensure you’re maintaining consistent content and quality in its curriculum keeping good records of class attendance and other pertinent data.

Many digital inclusion programs have found they can sustain a limited professional teaching staff but engage volunteers to add capacity, supplement class instruction with personal tutoring and manage administrative tasks like signing students into class. One advantage of this approach (aside from engaging more supporters in the work) is that the teaching staff can manage, support and schedule their own “team” while remaining accountable for all aspects of the class. In some cases, a volunteer corps (especially community volunteers) is a handy source of up-and-coming candidates for paid instructor openings when they occur.

For more guidance on running an effective volunteer program, see Appendix 3: Tips and tricks for running a program with digital literacy volunteers.

One-on-one instruction

Not all digital literacy programs are based on classes. Some digital literacy programs offer basic digital skills instruction on a one-on-one, on-demand basis. In community-based organizations, specific drop-in times are identified for one-on-one instructions. In libraries, this sometimes takes the form of library staff being available to respond immediately to patrons who ask for help and scheduling future help for the community member when needed. In some cases, libraries have created special paid or volunteer positions or invited partner organizations into the library to assume this role.

Community Tech Network14 offers drop-in hours with volunteers staffing the lab. One-on-one instruction happens ad hoc during drop-in times where learners can get their questions answered. Community Tech Network calls it “responsive tutoring.” After returning a few times, the learners get to know the trainers and build trust. Over time the learner feels comfortable sharing more about their needs and challenges.

In partnership with an NTEN and Google Fiber Digital Inclusion Fellowship, SLCPL launched The Tech League15 for community members to receive one-on-one tech assistance. This digital inclusion initiative uses community volunteers as Tech Mentors to build a more digitally inclusive community through workshops, events and classes. The Tech Mentor volunteer positions are co-sponsored through a partnership with the Applied Technology Foundation, Cotopaxi and the Salt Lake City Public Library.

The Tech League is heavily focused on helping underrepresented groups learn and understand how to use technology to support their personal or professional goals and improve the quality of their lives. The library leverages its community partnerships to reach community members where they are and customizes services to best meet their various technology needs. Examples of programs supported through the Tech League include:

  • In partnership with the International Rescue Committee, Tech Mentors support refugee families recently resettled into the Salt Lake City area and empower them to understand the power of technology.
  • Library staff and Tech League volunteers work with community partners to reach community members to ensure that underrepresented groups develop digital literacy skills. Community partners include a youth resource center, senior centers, drug rehab centers, homeless service providers, elementary schools and more.
  • The Bossard Memorial Library (Gallipolis, OH) offers a Book-a-Librarian program they titled “Tech Tutor,”16 through which community members can book a one-on-one technology training session with library staff on a variety of digital skills and receive customized guidance and support. Appointments are educational in nature and cover a wide range of topics, including computer basics, word processing, accessing the library’s online resources, using social media and more. Sessions are one-hour long, and community members can register for as many as they need. Prior to their session, community members read and sign a Tech Tutor Agreement, which states that during the session a staff member will answer questions to the best of their ability but will not do the work for the community member.

    The Wash and Learn Initiative17 (WALI, led by Libraries Without Borders (LWB), is a partnership between local libraries and community-based organizations (CBOs) to bring library resources and programming into laundromats. These laundromats are redesigned to include an internet connection, laptops and/or tablets, books and bookshelves and other educational materials. Public-use devices like laptops and tablets feature curated web browser homepages and simple user interfaces designed for users with low digital literacy. Partnering libraries and CBOs commit to providing a minimum of four hours of in-person programming a week, turning the available technology into a dynamic and effective, community-oriented space that meets the needs of customers. To date, LWB has successfully set up libraries in laundromats across eight states, reaching communities with limited literacy skills and poor access to technology, internet and other digital tools.

    Free Digital Skills Training Materials

    If you need curriculum ideas and materials for any of these purposes, there are many free sources. Here are some places to start:

    •, Gail Borden Public Library and PLA: A “one-stop shop” for computer and technology training for computer basics, hardware, software and applications as well as job search resources.18
    • Digital Literacy Pathway, Project Compass, WebJunction: A guide to offering basic computer training in your library that may help you decide how to plan and present your offerings. It provides a step-by-step guide through identifying your community’s needs, finding suitable training materials and partnering with other organizations that may be able to help you succeed.19
    •, GCF Global: Website with free resources and tools for learners to acquire necessary skills for 21st-century life. From Microsoft Office and email to reading and math, the site provides more than 180 topics, with more than 2,000 lessons, 800+ videos and 55+ interactives and games.20
    • Mozilla: Free and open source tools and resources to teach learners how to read, write and participate on the web. Materials range from web literacy basics, coding, protecting your data and more.21
    • A free educational website that teaches older adults and inexperienced internet users with basic computer skills about websites. Provides a vast array of articles, tutorials on 21st-century online platforms, tools and social media.22
    • Tech Goes Home (TGH): A variety of digital tools, classes and programs geared toward learning for schools, community, early childhood and small businesses.23
    • Technology Classes and Workshops, Denver Public Library: Robust resource for technology classes and workshops on a range of topics from 3D printing to computer basics to Javascript2. Their website includes lesson plans, handouts and supplemental materials.24

    If you can’t find what you are looking for with those resources, try NDIA’s digital inclusion library, a collection of documents, reports, teaching aids and other assets used by digital inclusion practitioners25, or Partnership for Bridging the Digital Divides’ collection of links to digital literacy training materials.26

    Note: Many of these sites have lessons or links to resources in Spanish and other languages.

    A growing number of digital literacy programs are using the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment to pre-assess new students’ skills, track and test their progress, and provide them the opportunity to earn a recognized basic-skills certification.27 Students have free online access to Northstar’s 10 separate basic skills assessments. Training programs can use the free online assessments for most purposes, but for a modest annual fee a nonprofit center or library can also become an authorized testing center with the ability to offer Northstar skills certifications to students and to access and manage students’ results through a dedicated portal.28


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    “Tech League,” Salt Lake CIty Public Library, accessed March 8, 2019,
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    “Book a ‘Tech Tutor,” Bossard Memorial Library, accessed March 8, 2019,
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    “Wash & Learn Initiative,” Libraries Without Borders, accessed March 8, 2019,
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    Tools and Resources for Trainers,” DigitalLearn, Public Library Association, accessed February 19, 2019,
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    “Teaching Activities,” Mozilla, accessed February 20, 2019,
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    “TechBoomers,” TechBoomers, accessed February 16, 2019,
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    “Our Programs,” Tech Goes Home, accessed February 16, 2019,
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    “Technology Classes & Workshops,” Denver Public Library, accessed February 17, 2019,
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    “Digital Inclusion Library,” NDIA, accessed February 16, 2019,
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    “Training,” Partners Bridging the Digital Divide, accessed February 16, 2019,
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    Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment,
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