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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.

CFY's STUDY
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 isolation.

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 them useful.

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 (www.communitycorner.org) 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 access.

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
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)