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Discussion Summary:

Making the Case for Technology Within the Community

Below is a summary of key points made by participants in an online discussion hosted by the Morino Institute from November 2000 to April 2001 with links to the full text of selected messages ("posts"). More information...


"The case for technology in low-income areas needs to be based on real, practical solutions to the human needs that people struggle with."
Robert McClintock, Institute for Learning Technologies, Columbia University

If you already use a computer, no one needs to persuade you of its benefits. But if computers are far removed from your day-to-day life as they are for many people in low-income areas it is not at all clear that computer technology is useful.

Marsha Reeves Jews of Advanced Educational Solutions observed, "Most low-income individuals live in environments that require laser focused attention on basic human needs just how to keep the lights on, the heat running, the water running, minimum food on the table, and one step ahead of an eviction notice. It is hard to focus on... '[having a] computer in the house' when there isn't even a telephone connected."

Even when the cost of a computer is not an issue, lack of interest often is. As Kit Collins of the Center for Educational Design and Communication noted, "The key is not winning over the ten percent who will get it, but the ninety percent who probably may not care."

So how do you show, convince, persuade, or prove the benefits of technology to individuals and groups who are preoccupied by other issues? During the online discussion, it became clear that "making the case" needs to happen on two levels with individuals and with the community groups that serve them.

Making the case to individuals

Unless the relevance of technology is demonstrated, most people living in low-income areas will not engage. Said Bonnie Politz and Richard Murphy of the Academy for Educational Development: "The issue of relevance for local stakeholders is high on our list of lessons learned; without it, there is little to no chance of success."

As Marsha Reeves Jews noted, "To see the light at the end of the tunnel requires... communication... that shows the net benefit to them directly... [But] the introduction to this type of 'way out thinking: computers' will be difficult [because] most people have very low reading levels, low self-esteem, and don't see themselves in this environment."

Even under the best circumstances for example, when the computers are free many people still need a compelling reason to use them. Randal Pinkett of the Inner City Consulting Group described the Camfield Estates-MIT Creating Community Connections Project, which offered each resident a free, state-of-the-art computer and a free, high-speed Internet connection via cable-modem. The demonstration project was designed to support the residents' interests and needs through the use of technology. Even so, "some residents had difficulty looking beyond the fact that technology was somehow connected to the initiative and, given their skepticism toward technology, were not inclined to sign-up," he said.

The online discussion brought out several ways of demonstrating relevance, including the following:

  • by providing access to information about health, employment, education, transportation, and other practical issues

    Bonnie Politz and Richard Murphy observed, "In some ways, the terms 'information' and 'data' have little to no relevance to large numbers of youth, parents, and community members (no matter what income level they are in). No relevance until... they want to find a Girl Scout group or a chess club or a bowling league for their daughter or son to join. Or, they need to know the easiest transportation route to an interview in the suburbs. Or, they want to know the services offered by the local adolescent health clinic... THEN, accessing information becomes relevant. The fact that this type of data can be retrieved easily via a computer makes people curious and interested in using the technology."

  • by providing the opportunity for people to gain skills that will lead to jobs that pay well (see the Promoting Economic Development section)
  •  

  • by offering information in an easy-to-use format, at appropriate literacy levels, and for speakers of other languages

    Said Nancy Green of the Markle Foundation, "[We] agree that access alone is not the answer; that technology is not a gift for anyone unless it delivers information, goods, and services that can improve people's lives. Key to this effort is creating functional, user-friendly applications that provide pertinent content, at the right literacy levels."

  • by showing community members how they can produce and create their own content

    "I completely agree that we must 'demonstrate the relevance of technology to people's lives and needs,' but there are many ways that could manifest itself," said Randal Pinkett. He added that "a major social outcome should be full participation in the new economy, which means it is not enough just to say that communities are using technology to achieve social outcomes, but at the same time, they are empowered to produce technology."

    Phyllis Meadows of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Glynis Long of Americans Communicating Electronically, Tony Wilhelm of the Benton Foundation, and several others concurred that progress will have been made when low-income individuals are active producers and not just consumers of content that matters.

Making the case to community groups

When working with community groups and making the case to them for why they should embrace technology, there must be an honest assessment of what the results will be. Andrea Schorr of the Fund for the City of New York noted that "the promotion of initiatives that are advancing superficial outcomes contributes to cynicism."

Laura Breeden of the America Connects Consortium concurred by pointing out the need to scale down rhetoric about "'magical' change... and high-impact breakthroughs." She added, "I think that in fact the change is more incremental... Some of the most powerful change in poor neighborhoods occurs because low-income people (whether adults or young people) are motivated by computer use to do things that they have not done before."

During the discussion, the online participants noted the desirability of community groups themselves using technology to improve their operations. The successful integration of technology can give strong, well-run groups the ability to significantly enhance or expand their services to individuals.

Making the case to community groups for why they should consider more extensive use of technology must necessarily focus on the costs as well as the benefits. Noted Mario Morino of the Morino Institute, "We do have to understand what we seek to do, what we need to do, and then ask if and how technology can help us do it better, in ways we could not do otherwise, and in a cost-effective manner that is affordable and sustainable."

Carlos Manjarrez of The Urban Institute pointed out, "Community leaders are rational people who... understand the benefits that can accrue from greater use of [information technology] in their own agencies... The problem as I see it, is that these same folks are also acutely aware of the associated costs." He explained further:

The agencies I work with worry about... the skills mismatch between their current staff and any newly adopted technologies; they worry about finding competent, affordable, tech labor in a tight labor market; and they worry about finding money for the inevitable hardware upgrades. These problems are vexing enough, but if you add the fact that few foundations are willing to support these rather resource intensive needs, then one can see that an agency's reluctance to jump in with both feet is indeed quite reasonable.

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A chronological list of key posts on this theme:

01

Robert McClintock
Institute for Learning Technologies
Nov 21, 2000

02 Laura Breeden
America Connects Consortium
Nov 27, 2000
03 Tony Wilhelm
Benton Foundation
Nov 27, 2000
04 Dr. Randal Pinkett
Inner City Consulting Group
Dec 5, 2000
05 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Dec 8, 2000
06 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Dec 9, 2000
07 Phyllis Meadows
W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Dec 13, 2000
08 Marsha Reeves Jews
Advanced Educational Solutions
Dec 21, 2000
09 Andrea Schorr
Fund for the City of New York
Dec 21, 2000
10 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Dec 23, 2000
11 Dr. Randal Pinkett
Inner City Consulting Group
Jan 8, 2001
12 Dr. Randal Pinkett
Inner City Consulting Group
Jan 9, 2001
13 Marsha Reeves Jews
Advanced Educational Solutions
Jan 16, 2001
14 Mario Morino
Morino Institute
Jan 16, 2001
15 Carlos Manjarrez
The Urban Institute
Jan 16, 2001
16 Bonnie Politz and Richard Murphy
Academy for Educational Development
Jan 23, 2001
17 Nancy Green
Markle Foundation
Feb 5, 2001
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