Computers For Youth:Focusing Digital Divide Efforts On The Home
Elisabeth Stock, Computers For Youth
Recently there has been a flurry of media attention on what should
be done about the disparity in home computer ownership between our
nation's wealthy and poor households. By sharing experiences from
Computers for Youth, this paper attempts to provide some insight
into the successes and challenges of running a program that provides
inner-city children with home computers. This paper then examines
what our findings have taught us and how these findings might help
shape public policy.
Computers for Youth (CFY) is a New York City-based nonprofit that
provides inner-city students and their teachers with fully-equipped
home computers and comprehensive services including training, technical
support and tailored web content. CFY was founded to refocus digital
divide efforts on the home. The home is where family members can
spend unlimited hours on the computer, something not possible at
libraries or community centers. In addition, studies show that home
computers can motivate students to do their homework and encourage
parents to become more involved in their children's education.
Last year Computers for Youth (www.cfy.org)
selected one inner-city public middle school in the South Bronx
and provided all the students, parents and teachers with a Pentium
computer after they completed a CFY half-day training session. Beginning
in October 1999, CFY conducted 11 training sessions during which
it distributed 228 home computer to families and teachers, and trained
approximately 470 members of the school community. All computers
were configured with Internet accounts (CFY paid for the first three
months, thereafter the families had to pay $8.50/mo to keep the
service) and a set of 112 pre-selected Internet browser bookmarks/favorites.
After families and teachers took their computers home, CFY provided
them with ongoing technical support free of charge.
A preliminary study completed after CFY's first year of operation
shows that students are using their CFY computers for such meaningful
activities as homework, word processing and finding information
on the Internet. It shows that overall the same percentage (90%)
of CFY students were using their home computer as were other school-age
children across the nation. It also shows that a dramatically higher
percentage of CFY children were using their home computers for word
processing (80%) than were lower-income students (24%) and even
higher-income students (50%) across the nation.
CFY's home computer program has also had a positive impact on the
school. In informal conversations, teachers report that their students'
schoolwork has improved not just in presentation but also in quality.
They say their students think "more clearly" when writing
on the computer. Students say their computers help them organize
their school work better and that they love doing research on the
Net. Students, who are often forbidden from hanging out on the street,
have said that the Internet has enabled them to break their social
CFY was able to keep the program's cost-per-family low by leveraging
investments from the business community and the households themselves.
The business community provided CFY with donated Pentium computers,
which we upgraded and reconfigured before distributing to families.
Once the computers were taken home, the families make additional
investments in the technology by purchasing complementary equipment
such as printers, scanners, or educational CD-ROMs. These investments
suggest that the families value their home computers and have found
TECHNICAL SUPPORT AND INTERNET ACCESS
Since completing the school in the South Bronx, CFY has worked with
three additional middle schools: one in East New York (Brooklyn),
one in East Harlem and one in West Harlem. Overall CFY has trained
914 individual members of these four school communities and distributed
443 home computers. For all these families and teachers, CFY provides
ongoing technical support free of charge. To date, CFY has resolved
over 130 tech support problems, most of which have revolved around
families' confusion over dialup networking, conflicting software
packages, or accidental damages to the operating system.
CFY's experience over the past year suggests that the typical "for-profit"
model for technical support-a help desk and a computer servicing
site-may not work well for new computer users. Some families call
the CFY help desk for support immediately, while others do not.
Yet when CFY representatives visit a partner school-a school where
all the students and their families have received CFY computers
and support services-the children with computer problems come immediately
to the staff to request help.
CFY's response to this finding has been to staff our help desk with
students recruited from the community served and to train "technical
helpers" who are a human presence in each of the partner schools.
A "technical helper" may be a CFY technician who periodically
visits the assigned school or a trained high school student from
the community. For families unable to bring their computers to the
warehouse for servicing, CFY has made arrangements with an outside
technician to make home visits at a reduced fee.
Some CFY families found it difficult paying the $8.50 monthly bill
for Internet access once the first three months of CFY-sponsored
access expired. CFY has since launched its Community Corner website
which should help explore whether families stopped paying because
they found the Internet to be of limited relevance. This website,
which is the default homepage on all computers now distributed,
provides families with an inviting and easy-to-use entrance to the
Internet. To ensure that this website reflects families' needs and
interests, CFY has built two programs that tap into the creativity
and imagination of individuals from the community. To learn whether
families stop paying for Internet access because they cannot afford
it, CFY has begun providing all families with Internet Service from
a free commercial provider in addition to giving them the option
of having the $8.50 monthly service for unlimited advertisement-free
THE INTERRELATIONSHIP OF SCHOOL COMPUTER USE AND HOME COMPUTER USE
In his national study, Professor Henry Jay Becker of U.C. Irvine
found that higher-income children used their home computers for
a wider range of applications overall than did lower-income children.
The applications Becker examined were school assignments, e-mail,
graphics/design, word processing, educational programs, and games.
He also found that schools serving high-income students generally
used computers in more intellectually powerful ways. Teachers in
these schools were more likely to use computers to teach students
to make presentations, analyze information or express themselves
in writing, compared with teachers in schools serving low-income
students who were more likely to use computers to emphasize skills
reinforcement and remediation.
CFY's findings raise important new questions about the relationship
between how students use their computers at home and how they and
their teachers use computers at school. CFY found that teachers
who know that all of their students have home computers are more
likely to assign computer-based homework (such as researching a
subject on the Internet) since they know they will not be giving
some students an advantage over others. CFY's study suggests that
computer-based homework assignments may be important in encouraging
students to use their home computers in substantive ways. Students
in higher grades, who said they were assigned more computer-based
homework, appear to use their home computers more often and for
more purposes than did students in lower grades.
In addition, CFY found that students with home computers tend to
improve their computers skills, which in turn enables teachers to
enrich the way they incorporate the "classroom" computers
into their lessons.
One social studies teacher reported that before his students had
home computers he had difficulty incorporating Internet research
into his lesson plans because he spent too much time teaching the
basics of turning on the computer and launching the web browser.
Now that all his students have home computers, he merely needs to
give them the website address.
CLOSING THE DIGITAL
DIVIDE -- THE PUBLIC POLICY DEBATE
As a nation, we have spent billions of dollars equipping schools,
libraries and community centers with computers and Internet access.
What has been left behind is the home. While 93% of families earning
more than $75,000 per year own home computers, only 40% of families
earning less than $30,000 pre year own them (Woodward, 2000). The
research suggests that the numbers of low-income families owning
home computers has stabilized (it was 41% in 1999 and 40% in 2000).
Providing access to computers in school, libraries and community
technology centers, while necessary, is not sufficient. The lack
of public support for home computer projects has significant educational
consequences. It forces children with no home computer to do much
of their homework away from their family, staying late after school
or visiting a community center or library just to do their research
and writing. It is a missed opportunity for parents to learn about
the school curriculum and become more involved in their child's
education. And, it presents obstacles for teachers who wish to incorporate
technology into their lessons but have students with little ability
to practice their computer skills outside the classroom.
Public policy to close the digital divide must also focus on bringing
technology into homes. Computers for Youth's program provides policymakers
with an inexpensive model. CFY's approach is both school-based and
comprehensive. Rather than selecting recipient families individually,
CFY identifies inner-city public schools and provide our services
to all the members of the school community. Students, parents and
teachers receive a computer and a comprehensive package including
training, technical support and tailored web content. CFY believes
these elements can strengthen the home-school connection, enable
students and teachers to use technology in more intellectually powerful
ways, and encourage parents to become more involved in their children's
education. It is school and family together that instill in children
the knowledge and skills to lead productive lives. Let's not leave
the families behind.
Becker, H.J. 2000. Who's Wired and Who's Not. Paper prepared for
The Future of Children, issue on Children and Computers, Fall 2000.
U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey of U.S. Households.(www.futureofchildren.org)