By Jen Vanek

In 2010 local leaders from organizations supporting adult literacy in St. Paul, Minnesota noticed that, though charged to provide opportunities for digital literacy training and often serving the same participants, libraries, community-based organizations, state agencies, and adult basic education programs were all describing the skills differently. This lack of shared understanding created confusion amongst learners about what to learn and when, and made it difficult for programs to align program descriptions or share resources in their computer labs and workshops (“Northstar basic computer skills certificate: History and purpose,” 2012).

In response, the Saint Paul Public Library, in collaboration with the St. Paul Community Literacy Consortium, convened a taskforce of practitioners to write a set of shared benchmarks defining digital literacy. Representatives from a range of diverse organizations took part, including: nonprofit community-based agencies, public and academic libraries, Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Literacy Council, Department of Employment and Economic Development, workforce development agencies, and Adult Basic Education (ABE) professionals (myself included). Over a period of several months the taskforce designed the Northstar Digital Literacy Standards through an open community process (“Northstar basic computer skills certificate: History and purpose,” 2012). Thus began the work that resulted in the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment Project, which is currently being used not only in St. Paul but across the U.S. and, in a limited way, internationally (“Northstar basic computer skills: Sponsoring sites,” 2012).

The skills represented in the assessment are essential if ABE learners are to succeed in 21st Century education and gain family-supporting waged employment. In short, they are foundational skills required to use computers and the Internet for academic work, job search, and an increasing deep list of administrative life tasks: banking, paying bills, applying for assistance programs, accessing healthcare information, and changing immigration status. (“Northstar basic computer skills certificate: History and purpose,” 2012, “Northstar basic computer skills certificate: Standards,” 2012).

We are thrilled that the assessment has been so broadly embraced. This unintended and unexpectedly broad reach is likely due to increased access to the Internet across the country. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, residential use of broadband Internet access is rapidly rising. A 2012 NTIA survey showed broadband adoption to be increasing for minority and low-income households. For example, within the categories of low-income and Hispanic Americans there is significant in home access to computers and Internet, 43% and 59%, respectively (“Connected Nation: Residential broadband adoption survey,” 2012). This increase in access has caused a huge divide between those who know how to use the Internet to access information and those who do not. Indeed, between low and high socio-economic classes the difference in use of the Internet for accessing information has never been greater (Wei & Hindman, 2011). The ubiquity of technology and access has created a new reality. Writing for the National Institute for Literacy, Warschauer and Liaw (2010) describe the situation well as: “We are becoming both a knowledge economy and an information society, and those who cannot access and use information and communication technologies face marginalization” (p.2).

There are countless ways this marginalization is manifested, including the following:

  • 70% of all jobs in the U.S. will require some computer literacy by 2016 (McCain, 2009).
  • Nearly 75% Minnesota State College and University System faculty report having an online component to their classes (Marchwick, Johnson, & Parrish, 2008, p. 4);
  • Starting in 2014, GED exams will only be offered via computers (“Programs and services: FAQ,” 2013);
  • Sutherland-Smith (2002) suggest that new technologies have redefined literacy to include digital and information literacies. Reading done via the Internet is Web literacy, a non-linear approach to literacy combining both reading and Internet navigation skills, requiring higher-order thinking than reading paper-based, linear texts (p. 663).

What is the Northstar Digital Literacy Project assessment?

The Northstar Digital Literacy Project assessment modules are free, available without registration, and allow test takers to understand their competency on the basic skills defined by the Northstar Digital Literacy Project standards (“Northstar basic computer skills certificate: Standards,” 2012). The assessment shows low-literacy adults their competency on the standards. The assessment consists of six online, self-guided modules: Basic Computer Use, Internet, Windows Operating System, Email, and Word Processing/ Microsoft Word (see figure 1) (“Northstar basic computer skills certificate: Assessment homepage,” 2012). They are represented graphically on the homepage of the project website,

jump launch

Figure 1. Assessment module launch icons.

I believe that many of the decisions we made about design and implementation have contributed to the assessment’s popularity. The assessment modules are unique in that they are completely free, interactive, and developed specifically for the very learners who most desperately need to understand their current digital literacy skills and learning needs (“Northstar basic computer skills certificate: History and purpose,” 2012).

Our design priority when putting together the modules was to avoid abstract representation of skills. Instead, when possible, in the assessment we require learners to actually demonstrate a task. This is illustrated in Figure 2. In this case, a learner must click on the “Compose mail” button to answer the question correctly. This mimics the task required when actually sending an email; it is an authentic task, not an abstract representation of the skill. We used this strategy to mitigate the impact of limited previous formal schooling, limited experience or success in abstract testing situations, and the low literacy level of many potential test takers.


Figure 2. Example item showing concrete task requirements.

Another guiding principle in design was to make the website accessible to the broadest possible audience given our available resources. As such we took the following steps:

  • Designed uncluttered pages with plenty of white space
  • Included audio prompts that enhanced the context of the written question
  • Provided closed captioning of the audio prompts (see Figure 3)


Figure 3. Example item showing design priorities.

A final important decision was to provide multiple scenarios for implementation of the tool. Most users access the assessment modules through the open online portal:, making the assessment available to any English or Spanish speaker in the world (see Figure 4).


Figure 4. Open use site homepage.

Once there, a visitor can access an assessment module by clicking on a test icons and/or choose a language option (currently, English is the default and Spanish is the only additional option). After taking an exam on this open site, learners are presented with a list of benchmarks they have successfully mastered (see Figure 5). By October 31, 2013 there were 102,783 assessments initiated on the open URL with a pass rate of 53.2% (include non-completers) and an average score of 81.9% on completed assessments (“Northstar digital literacy project: Administrative web-portal,” 2012).


Figure 5. Results page showing a benchmarks list.

The second way that the assessments can be accessed is through a customized URL assigned to a specific agency. These websites are available to sponsoring sites. For a minimal licensing fee, agencies receive a customized homepage and the resources, support and training needed to offer a secure, proctored, online assessment. They can also award certificates when learners achieve a passing score of 85% on a module (see Figure 6). Most importantly, sponsoring sites have access to an administrative portal where they can find data about testing events that occur on their website (see Figure 7). Many agencies use this data to inform instructional choices for their programs or individual learners. There are currently 88 agencies that are sponsoring sites (“Northstar digital literacy project: Administrative web-portal,” 2012).

northstsar cert

Figure 6. Certificate for passing World Wide Web assessment.


Figure 7. Administrative portal features.

Because of our commitment to mitigating the current digital divide, the Northstar Digital Literacy Project taskforce is continuously working to improve the assessment modules, the database, and implementation though support of the Minnesota Literacy Council, the Minnesota Department of Education, and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. We have a very open approach to this work; indeed, the assessment modules will soon be made available to agencies that wish to directly host them under a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-commercial/No derivatives license. There is much to lose if we do not continue engage with this work of broadening capacity of adult learners to use technology. Pushing on can help mitigate further disparity in incomes, lost opportunity to use technology for goal attainment, and the failure to prepare ABE learners for work in our digital world (Stites, 2004). The Northstar Digital Literacy Project has succeeded because of collaboration in the past and present. We hope you will join us in the very near future!

Acknowledgments Thank you to Tom Cytron-Hysom of the St. Paul Community Literacy Consortium, Kit Hadley of the Saint Paul Public Libraries, and Dr. Katey Baruth of Post University for assistance editing this article. About the author: Jen Vanek is currently a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, College of Education and Human Development. She has been working in the field of adult literacy since 1995. Jen has supported learners on college campuses and in adult learning centers, workforce centers, and factories. Her recent work centers on creating online content for Adult Basic Education (ABE) learners and supporting the professional development of ESL and ABE teachers in the area of digital literacy, distance learning, and adult career pathways. Jen has served on the Northstar Digital Literacy Project taskforce and staffed the project as a consultant to the Minnesota Literacy Council since it began in 2009. References

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Marchwick, K., Johnson, K., & Parrish, B. (2008). Instructional practices alignment project summary ABE transitions to post-secondary initiative: lignment of ABE and post- secondary instructional practices. St. Paul.

McCain, M. (2009). The power of technology: expanding access to adult education & workforce skills through distance learning. New York. Retrieved from

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Northstar digital literacy project: Administrative web-portal. (2012). Retrieved November 11, 2013, from

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Stites, R. (2004). Implications of new learning technologies for adult literacy and learning. Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, 4, 109–153. Retrieved from

Sutherland-Smith, W. (2002). Weaving the Literacy Web: Changes in Reading from Page to Screen. The Reading Teacher, 55(7), 662–669.

Warschauer, M., & Liaw, M.-L. (2010). Emerging technologies in adult literacy and language education. Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. Washington DC.

Wei, L., & Hindman, D. B. (2011). Does the digital divide matter more? Comparing the effects of new media and old media use on the education-based knowledge gap. Mass Communication and Society, 14(2), 216–235.