Penuel, W.R., Michalchik, M., Kim, D., Shear, L., Daniels, M., Jennings, P., Stites, R., & Yarnall, L. (2001). Community technology centers case study report: Learning with technology in six communities. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
The gap in educational outcomes between low-income and middle-income students and between white and nonwhite students in America is receiving renewed attention among our nation’s educators and policy-makers. There have been numerous calls from policy-makers across party lines for educational reforms aimed at boosting academic achievement for all students in K-12 education and at providing lifelong educational opportunities to increase the literacy and job skills of adults. In the past, we have looked primarily to classroom teachers and schools to effect reforms, but responsibility for improving educational opportunity for the least advantaged sectors of our population extends, in the minds of many, beyond the classroom. Families, faith-based groups, charities, and community organizations each have an important role to play in addressing educational inequalities in our country and in reshaping educational institutions for the future.
The growing gap in achievement between low- and middle-income students in the past decade and a widening opportunity gap in the workforce have coincided with the broad social and economic changes resulting from the development of new information technologies (see Castells, 2000). In response to these changes, there has been a growing movement to establish community technology centers, community-based organizations that work to enhance learning opportunities for low-income Americans through the use of computers and other technological tools. Depending on their focus, community technology centers help participants build any of a number of important academic and life skills. Table 1 shows the range of educational program goals that are typical of community technology centers across the United States.
Table 1. Types of Program Goals for Community Technology Centers
- Access Goals: Provide computers and Internet access to a community that lacks these resources, or expand hours of public access to computers.
- English Language Literacy Goals: Improve language skills to an immigrant community or a community with historically low English reading and writing skills.
- Educational Goals: Improve academic achievement among school-age children or provide GED courses to adults.
- Basic Computer Literacy Goals: Provide essential skills of computer usage, such as how to turn on the computer and how to use simple desktop tools and the Internet.
- Advanced Technical Skills/Career Readiness Goals: Teach programming or use of specialized software tools that will offer new career opportunities, or provide a suite of programs to assist in job searches and business development.
- Community Building/Empowerment Goals: Strengthen a community through improved communication and/or promoting involvement in local issues.
For young people, program offerings typically build on and extend the basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics. Participants in community technology centers learn how to use and produce text, images, and other modes of representation made available through technological innovations. Participants at these centers also learn to operate, explore, and often even repair computers and other digital technologies in ways that they would have few opportunities for otherwise. For many low-income Americans, programs such as those provided by community technology centers are their primary means of accessing, learning from, and learning about digital technologies (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1999).
For adults and older youth, the learning opportunities provided by community technology centers are generally designed to prepare participants for the demands of the workplace in the new economy. These programs typically provide both an introduction to advanced technical skills, often leading to special certification, and job readiness training and career counseling. Jobs in today’s economy require understanding of information technologies and fluency with the productivity tools made available by computers. Community technology centers often provide programs designed to prepare workers to be thinkers, problem solvers, and decision-makers, skills that educational researchers and workplace ethnographers see as critical in contemporary workplaces (see Barley & Orr, 1997; Gee, 1997).