Posted on February 4, 2022 by Christopher Reichert


M. Sidury Christiansen, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies (BBL) and 2021-2022 Next-Gen Provost Fellow for Academic Innovation, has been awarded a seed grant by the Westside Community Center to launch UTSA’s Adult Digital Literacy through Language Education (ADLLE) Community Lab. This program seeks to aid adults in the Westside community in becoming digitally literate and advance their language skills. 

Christiansen, describes digital literacy as “an emergent form of literacy practice that encompasses the ability to draw on different technology resources to find, evaluate, interpret, research, analyze, and produce information critically, as well as to clearly communicate information through written and spoken language and other media on various digital platforms.”  

While many programs exist that are devoted either to adult language education or digital literacy, Christiansen says the key to her project is the combination of the two.  

“But language now is not separated from digital means; we communicate with and through technology.” 

“When people do outreach programs, they either teach digital literacy or they teach English as a second language, so they see those as two separate things,” she said. “But language now is not separated from digital means; we communicate with and through technology.”  

This has never been clearer than in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic when life for many people has become digital. From work and school to buying groceries or scheduling a doctor’s appointment, many everyday tasks have moved online. Suddenly, people who lacked digital resources found themselves lacking real-world resources as well. The challenge is compounded for non-English speakers.   

Although the pandemic has highlighted the challenges of digital access in communities, the origins of the ADLLE Community Labs go back to 2012 with Erlinda’s Wish, a program intended to train housekeeping staff in digital skills. Eventually, Christiansen said English instruction was also incorporated. But when the program fell victim to pandemic closures in 2020, Christiansen felt there were still people who needed those services.   

“I think that UTSA has a lot to offer, and we are using this space within the community, and the least we can do is give back,” she said. “I think in the College of Education we go into education because we love to teach, we love to share.”  

And giving back to the Westside community is the primary goal of the ADLLE Community Lab. To accomplish this, Christiansen and the BBL department have partnered with San Antonio Time Dollar, a nonprofit community development organization that provides programs and services to the Westside community. These include academic services like tutoring and gardening classes as well as a food pantry. This is where Christiansen plans to offer language and digital literacy classes twice a week. Time Dollar is providing the location, while the BBL Department will provide the instruction, with a handful of master’s and Ph.D. students providing instruction and onsite supervision. But though she may be starting small, Christiansen is already thinking big.  

“My goal is to make ADLLE as accessible as possible, so people can simply walk in and get the help,” she said. “I don’t want to say no to people who really want to learn, because I’ve seen it over and over: people want to learn and they get turned down because there’s not enough help or we don’t have the resources – it’s just heartbreaking.”  

While the first goal is to benefit the community, Christiansen describes the Community Lab program as a win-win for community members and the students who work there.   

“The benefits are both personal and academic for [students] in both the Ph.D. and master’s degree programs,” she said. These benefits include keeping educators in the Ph.D. program in touch with the community, while providing master’s students invaluable teaching experience. This is especially true in the Westside community, which boasts many linguistic varieties of Spanish that students – English and Spanish speakers alike – may be unfamiliar with. Due to the small size of the program and its emphasis on adult education, Christiansen doesn’t expect to have undergraduates at the ADLLE Community Lab. Nevertheless, she says master’s students who want ultimately to work with middle and high school children could still benefit from participation at the Lab.  

“Many ESL students in middle and high school are recent immigrants, so the experience is similar,” she said.  

Such a program is naturally not without its challenges. For Christiansen, one of the biggest she expects to face is accommodating the people she’s serving. Adults, she says, take education seriously; all too often, however, life gets in the way. Childcare, transportation, ability to take time off of work, and even hunger pose significant barriers to some in the community. This is an area Christiansen hopes Time Dollar can assist with, as the organization already has resources in place to handle some of these challenges. This partnership will free Christiansen to educate and, once work is underway, implement the program’s research component.   

Christiansen aims to study how well the instruction is working, as well as examining issues of identity and belonging within the community. As with her educational aims, she says such research is similarly cutting edge.  

“Digital literacy and language education has never been integrated for research; not many are studying it because hardly anyone does it,” she explained.  

Christiansen’s secondary goal with the ADLLE Community Lab is to bridge the so-called “digital divide,” the gap between those who have access and knowledge of technology and those who don’t. She says one pervasive myth is that digital access is primarily determined by age when, in her experience, it’s more a matter of money and knowledge. Furthermore, Christiansen believes digital literacy involves teaching people of all ages not just how to use the technology, but also how to think critically about consuming and producing information within it.  

“To close the digital divide, we must do more than merely provide internet access, we must work towards an equitable way to consume and produce digital information critically.” 

“Just because someone is young doesn’t mean they can access things…Even kids, if you don’t teach them how to use a tool, are going to use it to play. They’re going to be great at games, but now give them a tool to really research something and see the digital divide , ” she said. “To close the digital divide, we must do more than merely provide internet access, we must work towards an equitable way to consume and produce digital information critically.”   

The ADLLE Community Lab is expected to officially open on Feb. 14. Those interested in volunteering, participating, or learning more can contact Christiansen.  


-Christopher Reichert

— Christopher Reichert