If you're addicted to e-mail and you live on the Web, it's hard to imagine that anyone could be completely unfamiliar with computers. But even here in the high-tech Triangle, there are people who've gone so long without entering the digital world that they find the prospect of learning how to use a computer daunting, even impossible.
A program of the Goodwill Community Foundation in the Triangle offers free online courses in everything from computer basics, math, life skills and a list of applications that includes Word and Excel. Though the foundation is based in Raleigh, the GCF Global Learning program is being used on every continent in the world. The free curriculum, which includes self-guided tutorials as well as distance learning with live instructors, is offered in English and Spanish. In 2006, more than 3,000 people completed courses, bringing the total number to more than 8,700 since 2002. More than 200,000 people have become program members through the site (www.gcflearnfree.org). GCF funds these courses through sales at their GCF stores here in the Triangle.
One of the most remarkable things about the GCF program is the diversity of people who use it. They span every socioeconomic background, generation, ethnicity and skill level. Some have worked construction or housekeeping jobs and are trying to gain new job skills. Some are retired and want to communicate with their grandkids. Some are recent immigrants to the United States, while others are just entering the workforce again after a long hiatus. Some have disabilities that technology can help with. Some are homeless, using a shelter's Internet access. Some are college-educated, middle class people just trying to improve their skills.
The instructors see it all.
"I have people who tell me that they were in manufacturing jobs in North Carolina and have been laid off or injured," says Andrea Sorvino, an instructor who helped develop the site and now teaches from her home in Hillsborough. "They seem to use computers at their local libraries and workforce development centers."
Rick Thornton, a retired officer in the Australian Air Force, teaches classes for GCF from Bribie Island in Queensland, Australia. He says his favorite course to teach is PowerPoint, "as it is a daily travelogue for me where I can actually see and learn a bit about where the students live and learn." Thornton's students are in North America, Europe, the Caribbean, Canada and Africa. The North Americans tend to use computers at home or at work as part of staff development training. Others study from job search centers and libraries. In Africa, many use Internet cafés. Among Thornton's success stories are an Afghan who works for the United Nations, a vision-impaired woman in assisted housing in the United States who got a job at the computer center in her building, and a man in Tanzania who walked two hours to pay for access at an Internet café once a week. "He regularly sent me 'God's blessing' for caring enough to help 'a poor man like him,'" Thornton says.
The stories are moving, and Thornton clearly loves his job. "They come to us for knowledge and to gain confidence, self respect, jobs, promotions (sometimes), or just human contact, even if it is via e-mail," he says.
Until last year, GCF also offered in-person classes at their Hargett Street center in downtown Raleigh. Attendance policies were strict, but anyone could take a class for free.
An intro class to computers met four days a week for three hours a day over the course of nine weeks, covering three units that including everything from figuring out the desktop to creating PowerPoint presentations.
Veronica Davis, a retired grandmother from Raleigh and a volunteer at a local charter school, already knew how to use a computer but took the class to make sure she knew well enough to teach the kids. "My fourth graders, I didn't want them knowing more than me," she said during the third week of the class. "I also learned how to help them navigate the Internet." And perhaps her most practical breakthrough was in learning the chat lingo her students use in their AOL Instant Messenger conversations. "It's good to be one step ahead of them," she said. Davis later graduated from the class.
Another of the students was Roger Wheaton, a 48-year-old man who was living at the Wilmington Street shelter, trying to recover from alcohol addiction and get a foothold on a better life.
"For somebody who's homeless and had problems, maybe being incarcerated, drugs, alcohol, maybe a little less fortunate than others," Wheaton said, "I think this would be a good place for them to start to get up on their feet and maybe get a career down the road. I think they make learning real easy here." Wheaton had painted houses his entire life but was worried that he wouldn't always be able to climb ladders and carry five-gallon cans of paint. He had barely used a computer before the class. By the end of the third week, he'd learned how to create and work on documents in Word, how to cut and paste, and how to print.
"It does not matter if you come from the shelter or if you come from North Raleigh," he said. "You need to understand that when you come in here, you're going to get the same treatment, the same education and the same care. Their concern is to teach you, to make sure that you learn what you come to learn." Wheaton completed two of the three units before returning to his hometown of Wilmington to be closer to his family.
Davis, Wheaton and the other students made sacrifices to attend the classes four days a week. (She put off knee surgery; he worked the night shift.) Partly for that reason, GCF recently decided to make the courses online only in order to devote more resources toward curriculum and online instruction. They have since added video tutorials to illustrate advanced functions in Word and Excel.
But there are two satellite GCF Learning Centers that offer in-person instruction: The New Life Center, founded by missionaries in Kitwe, Zambia; and IDEAL, a center for mentally disabled children in Bogotá, Colombia.
"The majority of our learners have never been in contact with the computer before," says Muteb Mufind, the instructor in Kitwe. "The computer belongs to the 'other world'—the world of genius, advancement and smart people. Most of them think you have to be particularly brilliant in mathematics and physics to use the computer." But that's starting to change, he says, and the city of 1.2 million that used to rely on the copper mining industry is beginning to fill with cyber-cafés.
In Bogotá, the children begin by playing with music, games and multimedia that will pique their interests. "This opportunity has permitted the youth of IDEAL to draw near to technology without fear and with complete ease," says instructor Monica Torres Romero, "and to use the computer as a tool of communication and expression of creativity and emotion."
For an interactive map of who's taking GCF's online courses, visit www.gcflearnfree.org/Home/InteractiveMaps.aspx.