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Morino Institute From Access to Outcomes: Digital Divide Report and Dialogue
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Working Through the Community

Post:

01

Date:

Nov 30, 2000

From:

Carlos Manjarrez


This comment was prepared as part of my review of the report but it seems appropriate for the current discussion so I thought I'd throw it on the list.

An important point was made by an earlier commentator - "strategies to affect organizations may not be the same as those that affect families". I think that by addressing this point you would make a much more effective case for moving beyond the current focus on access for the following reasons. First, identifying the beneficiaries of the community building efforts you propose would lay to rest some of the questions people have regarding the term "community infrastructure". Second, the digital divide debate is in desperate need of a more subtle analysis - one that distinguishes between the different approaches that have evolved and the outcomes they hope to achieve. I say this because I have noticed a tendency among some advocates (and critics) to lump very different types of Digital Divide initiatives into the same general category without giving much thought to the fact that different outcomes might extend from different programs.

I think it best to illustrate this point by example... There are some great programs that have popped up across the country that recycle or refurbish old computers and give them new homes. I would argue that these types of programs are primarily aimed at improving opportunities for INDIVIDUALS or households. The outcomes that we can hope to achieve through this type of intervention (higher educational attainment for the kids, increased job opportunities for parents, etc.) are specific to the family receiving the computer. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that individual level interventions such as these translate into a stronger community infrastructure. Individual level interventions don't always aggregate so cleanly. Indeed, if you buy William J. Wilson's argument in Truly Disadvantaged, you might expect the opposite to happen. Successful individual level interventions might ultimately have a negative impact on community infrastructure, as those families with improved life circumstances would be more likely move out of resource poor areas.

Now let's look at a different intervention - CTCs. I think one could fairly argue that CTCs hold the promise of building community on at least two levels. They can improve the life chances of individual program participants AND they can build capacity for community organizations. Think of it this way, a computer in every home for neighborhood X may have an impact on the test scores of kids that attend the local school, but there is no guarantee that this action will change the way the school is run. In fact, one could easily imagine a scenario where, despite the fact that every kid has a computer, curriculum, instruction, homework, communication between school and parents - all remain unchanged. Support for schools (to say nothing about change) very often requires the use of external institutional mechanisms. CTCs are in an excellent position to serve that role. For example, they can provide instructional support by articulating computer training with classroom teaching. They improve school capacity by providing technology training to teachers and other members of the school community. They could build capacity by providing technical support to local schools and other community institutions. They can broaden the learning environment for students by providing another space for them to learn from caring, trained individuals and from each other. I could go on but I think the point is made. There are desirable community level outcomes that extend from CTCs that you could not reasonably expect to achieve with the chicken in every pot/computer in every home type of intervention.

Mind you, this is not an attempt to prioritize interventions. I think individual level interventions are very important. What I am saying here is that we should be very clear about what outcomes we can expect from different interventions. I am hopeful that by shifting the discussion in this direction we will move away from vague references to empowering community infrastructure to a more concrete discussion about how specific technology based interventions will help children, the elderly, clinics, or schools.

-Carlos

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