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...
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:
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:
A chronological list of key posts on this theme: