Spanish-Language Computer Classes for Patrons
With large and growing Spanish-speaking populations and computer access a central delivery mechanism, libraries across the country are beginning to offer computer training in Spanish to their patrons. WebJunction recently collected information from a dozen Spanish-language programs from across the country. If you’re thinking about launching or upgrading a program of your own, here are their answers to your questions.
Why should I launch a Spanish-language computer training program?
For many of the libraries who responded, the need for classes was obvious--but a formal needs assessment can really help provide clarity and focus for a program. The Union County (NC) Public library conducted a needs assessment in 2000-2001 and identified three major needs of the adult Hispanic community:
Lisa Regimbal of the Multnomah County (OR) Public library emphasized the outreach aspect of the program. “Our main goal is to bring more Spanish-speaking patrons to the library, so that they can take advantage of all the services that the library provides.” The Maricopa (AZ) Public Library’s Normalene Zeeman goes further: “With the Card Catalog being online-access only, it was critical that computer instruction be given in Spanish, or over 95% of the library was useless to Spanish-only speakers.”
What’s the first step?
Once the need has been established, a thorough planning process really helps keep things on track. At the PLA Conference in Seattle in February 2004, Hector Marino of the Des Plaines (IL) Public Library offered a session on “Successful Computer Classes for Multicultural Communities.” He emphasized the importance of planning in developing a sustainable program, including establishing clear objectives, determining available resources, and specifying expected results.
Maria Mucino of the Mesa (AZ) Public Library says, “I have followed some basic steps: 1) community outreach and coalition building; 2) community needs and assets assessment; 3) programming and resources building, and finally 4) public awareness and public relations. These four steps have been the rule to a successful programming.”
Larry Maynard of the Colorado State Library has put together an excellent workbook that walks you through many of the issues you’ll face in setting up a Spanish-language computer training program in your library.
What classes should my library offer?
Most of the programs we surveyed offered courses on the basic computer skills, including:
Elissa Scudder of the Danbury (CT) Public Library reports that her library offers a class on “El Ratón (the mouse),” to provide very basic intruction to brand-new computer users. Many agree that the biggest need is for training in basic skills.
Some library programs go further, offering courses in subjects such as:
Alvaro Sanabria of the San Francisco (CA) Public Library’s extensive Spanish language program says that some advanced students have become proficient enough to create their own Web pages. In smaller libraries, Suzanne Huff’s experience at the Provo (UT) City Library may be more typical: “I think that I will go back to offering Email in the place of Advanced Internet in the Spanish classes. The Advanced Internet in Spanish has never drawn many students, and email is such a necessity.” Suzanne also notes that "all the software we use in class is in English because that is what the students will encounter when they use our public computers and if they use computers at work."
The Fullerton (CA) Public Library’s Kurt Keesling has found that, whatever the subject matter, making the classes interactive and relevant to students’ interests helps immensely--and so does putting the teaching in the context of delivering library services.
Multnomah County’s Lisa Regimbal sees consistent, regular, and predictable class offerings as a key element of success, so once you’ve come up with an appropriate set of classes it may be prudent to stick with it for a while.
Where do I get class materials?
A valuable resource is REFORMA (www.reforma.org), a national association promoting library and information services to Latinos and other Spanish speakers. Libraries and Provo, UT, and Maricopa, AZ, have found it best to create their own materials. Libraries with Gates Foundation grants have access to Spanish-language course materials, and several of the libraries surveyed are making use of them.
Who should teach the classes?
If you’re considering setting up a program, finding resources to teach the classes is a primary consideration. Several programs emphasize the importance of having native Spanish-speakers lead the classes where possible. Norma Pountney of the Omaha (NE) South Branch Public Library makes use of volunteers; in their initial offering the volunteer didn’t show, so they had to offer their first Spanish-language class in English with a translator. Fortunately, during the course of that first session, a new volunteer happened by, offered to help out, and is still teaching in the program today! In Mesa, AZ, the library has partnered with the public schools to make the most effective use of capable instructors.
Often non-native-speaking library staff end up teaching the classes themselves. In Provo, UT, librarians have had to bone up on their Spanish-language computer jargon before teaching, and in Maricopa, AZ, class sizes have to be kept small so teachers who are not native speakers have a better chance of overcoming communication gaps. (Keeping class sizes small is not a bad idea in general—in Omaha, NE, sizes are small both because of limited computer resources and students’ need for lots of personal attention.) Having a class assistant is very useful, as they’ve found in San Francisco. Colleagues of the Fullerton Library’s Kurt Keesling are getting used to patrons asking for him as “Don Alejandro” (the name he uses in his role as Spanish-language computer instructor) at the front desk.
How do I get students in the door?
First, the word has to get out. Successful Spanish-language computer training programs have been able to identify how their Spanish-speaking community gets its information. Sometimes it takes making creative connections: José Garcia of the Mid-Columbia (WA) Library realized that WorkSource was an important employer for this community and promptly used it as an outreach vehicle for his library classes.
Among the other communication channels libraries are using:
Normalene Zeeman of Maricopa, AZ, has found that kids are likely to be computer-friendly and willing to try new things. Reaching out to them through schools and their library-friendly peers has been an effective first step to connecting with their parents.
Alvaro Sanabria of San Francisco believes the library’s decision to provide a complete Spanish language home page and OPAC has been a major factor in raising its visibility within the Spanish-speaking community, and this has had an effect on class attendance. (Read WebJunction’s recent article about the Miami-Dade County (FL) Public Library, which has made a major effort to provide a Spanish-language OPAC to its patrons.)
Evenings are a popular time for offering classes, though sometimes it’s difficult to schedule them in libraries with limited hours. In Provo, UT, they’ve found that a rotating schedule, with classes in mornings, evenings, and Saturdays, has been effective in reaching more segments of their audience.
The Omaha, NE, Spanish-language class program started out on a registration basis, but many who registered simply didn’t show up. They’ve switched to a first-come, first-served drop-in basis with better and more consistent attendance.
What outcomes should I expect?
Libraries with Spanish-language computer training programs report that class participants come back to the library to use their skills. They use the Internet to communicate with loved ones, keep up on the latest news, and make travel arrangements--but they also explore other types of library services. Perhaps most importantly, once they’ve made the connection with the library though the classes, they feel more confident about asking for help from staff, and practicing English communication skills with them.
Here’s a story from Maria Mucino in Mesa, AZ that sums up the promise and possibilities of Spanish-language computer classes: “A patron took our classes back in 2002. In those days she was just coming from Venezuela as a political refugee, she did not speak any English at all and she needed to learn how to email friend and family. She also had some hopes to use the Internet and learn English through ESL Web sites. She did it all right: last month she was hired through the City of Mesa as Bilingual Gallery Educator! During her panel interview she mentioned all the help she got from her first experience at the library computer classes in Spanish. It was very gratifying to hear that story, especially because other people can follow her steps if they really want to succeed.”
City of Mesa (AZ) Public Library
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