Merlene Davis: Build your digital literacy for free

During the second presidential debate earlier this month, Mitt Romney's reference to "binders full of women" became an instant sensation over the Internet. Thousands and thousands of people quickly tweeted the phrase, made mention of it on Facebook, and parodied it on Tumblr.

But those not hooked up to the ever-growing Internet conversations missed out.

"There is a shift in the conversation," said Adam Banks, University of Kentucky associate professor of writing, rhetoric and digital media. "What is happening to the debates and the responses to the debates has a whole different flavor than what's on CNN, FOX or MSNBC."

Because of that shift, many of us don't hear or see conversations that our community is having because we are not technology savvy. The more we educate ourselves about technology, the more we can continue on the frontlines of improving our counties, cities and country.

"It is not that the digital stuff is replacing print, TV or radio," Banks said. "The relationship between them is changing."

Banks wants us to "use online interaction to make real differences in our communities offline."

To do that, though, many of us need to figure out just what we can do with the latest digital devices we own.

"What I'm trying to do is slowly build digital literacy issues as a community issue," he said. "A lot of the solutions we are looking for can come to us if we are using technology to build community."

Banks has been hosting a weekly class called "TechTuesdays @ The Fig — Digital Literacy for Community Building and Activism," at The Wild Fig Bookstore, 1439 Leestown Road.

We have missed three classes, but three more remain and Banks assured me that even one or two sessions could be of tremendous help. The text for the classes is Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, by Howard Rheingold, which is free along with class use of a Kindle Fire.

The classes are "equal parts social media workshop, book discussion group," Banks said. Most of us have "mobile libraries, printing presses, and audio and video production studios right in our pockets, our homes and schools, but that we have to figure out how to harness that power and use it for good," he said.

Older residents can use technology to avoid the isolation that may accompany physical limitations. They can connect with others of like mind, or find long-lost friends, all while remaining safely at home. They can check resources such as health care or they can use Skype for visual contact with grandchildren.

Plus, Banks said, in a state where literacy is a crucial issue, "what does it mean to be literate now that digital is such a big part of our lives?"

"Equalizing technology access is far more than having a smartphone or buying a computer and paying for a connection," Banks said. "Meaningful access always comes down to what we do with, and what we know how to do with, technology. It comes down to using our technologies to build each other up, revitalize communities, and solve real problems."

Participants in the workshops will learn:

■ How to use social media tools like Twitter, blogs, Flickr, Reddit, YouTube and more.

■ What "digital literacies" (skills, abilities and understandings) matter and why.

■ Why it's OK to play around in digital spaces to learn instead of waiting for classes.

■ How social media and digital tools can be used to address community concerns.

On Tuesday the topic will be "Participation Power." Free light refreshments will be provided.

To stay informed, we need to change with the times and Banks is giving us a chance to do just that.