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SIS Teams Up with 4-H, UTIA, to Improve Digital Literacy in Rural Tennessee

Excellent scholarship and research is one of the core components of any Research 1 institution, and that has been a driving force behind the work of both faculty and students at the College of Communication and Information. But there is always room to grow, improve, and expand the scope of what is done, which is what Goal 2 of  CCI’s Strategic Plan sets out to do. This goal emphasizes the impact and interdisciplinary nature of the type of research that should be done in the college, with an aim to create “a more just, prosperous, and sustainable future.”

One such project that embodies this was recently awarded a $149,635 one-year planning grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. School of Information Sciences Associate Professor Devendra Potnis and four co-principal investigators (PI) will use this funding to research how rural libraries, 4-H, and the UT Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) can work together to help rural communities in Tennessee.

Connecting Libraries with 4-H 

Potnis is working in collaboration with co-PIs Daniel Collins, an extension specialist for UTIA; Jamie Greig, assistant professor of agricultural communication; Jamie Harris, an extension specialist for UTIA; and Shelli Rampold, assistant professor in agricultural leadership.

This project will take a look at the needs of rural libraries and communities across the state, and will also gather data from 15 communities where libraries and 4-H are working together to build digital literacy. Building digital literacy means teaching people how to use and understand technology—a skill Potnis said could be integral in boosting the economy of many rural farming communities.

“It will empower many stakeholders in rural America, that is my big incentive. I like rural communities and working with them, and this will contribute to our land grant mission as a university and a college,” Potnis said.

Chancellor’s and SIS Professor Suzie Allard, who is director of CCI’s Research and Innovation Center, said this type of project embodies the land-grant mission set forth by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, as it will have impact on people throughout the state of Tennessee.

“As a land grant university, the ag schools are a really important part of our profile and who we are, and to be able to have information sciences and our college linked up with that basic foundational part of our mission is huge,” Allard said. “Our ag offices are in every county in this state, which is a way for UT to touch every county. This is another way to raise the visibility of what information can do.”

This project came about when one of Potnis’ students introduced him to a rural Appalachian community of new mothers. When speaking with the new mothers, familiar themes about their farming-related issues in their communities kept coming up in the conversations. Potnis previously worked with farming communities in India, and many of the problems farmers there faced are the same issues Appalachian farmers encounter, he said. 

“In India, I was working with farmers to understand their needs and how technology can help them meet those needs,” he said. “And access to technology is not enough, they need to be able to use those technological solutions.”

Creating Lifelong Learning Opportunities

Their research will inform the creation of a certificate rural librarians can earn so they can work with farmers to build digital literacy. The certificate will be called the Digital Inclusion of Farming Communities certificate, which SIS Professor and Director Abebe Rorissa said creates a life-long learning opportunity for librarians and community members. 

“When I read the vision and mission of our school, this research aligns with those very well. It hits all of the CCI Strategic Plan goals, and I cannot say the same for most projects,” Rorissa said.

Rorissa said he believes this planning grant will lay the foundation for additional grants and work that will have an even greater impact on rural communities in Tennessee, especially because the certificate program will be based on the research Potnis and his co-PIs will conduct this year. 

“This shows practice-based curriculum, it’s not an ivory tower certificate program, and I think that’s very important for training our librarians to learn,” he said. 

Another intended result of this project is to better understand how 4-H can collaborate with librarians in aiding farmers. His co-PI, Harris, said this unique partnership will “strengthen community relationships and provide additional networking opportunities for Extension and 4-H programming,” all of which can have long-lasting effects on those involved. 

Potnis said that, after they spend a year gathering information from all of the stakeholders, he hopes another grant will be awarded to make implementation of their certificate program possible. CO-PI Greig said that, despite the increase in information and communication technologies (ICT) in the world, there is a lack of support and training for people to use those advances in rural and agricultural areas. 

“4-H is the world’s largest youth-serving organization and we hope to build a bridge between Tennessee 4-H, rural libraries, and farm workers in order to increase ICT awareness, knowledge, and confidence,” said Greig.

Learn more about the details of this project here.