Mary, an unemployed woman in her early forties, occasionally used her home computer for word processing, but feared breaking it if she experimented with other uses. Classes at her local community technology center convinced her that, in fact, she had a facility for technology. “I started taking computers apart,” she says, and quickly progressed to more sophisticated tasks. Mary recently installed a network for a local nonprofit agency. “A year ago, I wasn’t able to do that. I felt really proud about it,” she says.
A former secretary, Eve had never used computers in her work, but after retiring, she ventured into her local community technology center out of curiosity. She stayed on to learn about computers, the Internet, and electronic publishing, and now shares her growing technical knowledge with others at the center. In order to reach out to others at the computer center, Eve had to overcome a lifelong habit of “sitting back, being the quiet one.” Today she muses, “where did that shy person go?”
Both Mary and Eve are profiled in a new study of community technology centers (CTCs) released by EDC. A longitudinal analysis of a dozen users over two years, it confirms that CTCs play an important and ongoing role in peoples’ lives. Participants quickly come to rely on the technical assistance, high-end equipment, and the social and educational opportunities the centers provide. Most users return regularly for additional support and training or as teachers themselves.
With hundreds of centers offering free or sliding scale computer access around the country, the CTC movement is “now part of the national agenda on ‘digital opportunity,’” says EDC’s Vivian Guilfoy, vice president of the Center for Education, Employment, and Community. EDC staff have been been supporting and studying CTCs under a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for the past five years, looking specifically at centers that belong to the Community Technology Centers’ Network (CTCNet), which was a project of EDC from 1995 until 2000.
From East Palo Alto’s “Plugged In” to the Old North End Community Center in Burlington, Vermont, CTCs appear in an array of settings, from job training agencies and youth organizations to museums, churches, and substance abuse rehabilitation centers. Computer classes are available, but so is hands-on help. Students drop in after school because centers are safe and friendly; recent immigrants use e-mail to stay in touch with family. People come in to polish their resumes, to write Congress, play computer games, and hunt for work over the Internet—where, increasingly, employers go looking for computer-literate workers.
The new study, directed by Jan Ellis, builds on two earlier CTC studies she and June Mark led in 1997 and 1998. The 1997 study of 131 users at five centers found a return rate of close to 90%. Users reported increased feelings of autonomy, competency, and confidence as they tapped into center resources to build their job skills, pursue long-standing interests, enter the civic life of their communities, and set and meet educational goals. Although women and girls are generally held to have less interest in technology than men and boys, nearly two-thirds of center users are female.
Close to two-thirds of the users earn below average incomes and more than half have no other access to information technology. And yet the centers attract more affluent users, too—people who have computers but not scanners or high-end printers, for instance. Perhaps uniquely among social service agencies, CTCs serve—and bring together—people whom money and class might otherwise separate.
CTCs have the potential, notes researcher Jan Ellis, to create and strengthen communities in much the same way that churches and other affiliative institutions do. Terry, a homeless man, found in his community technology center a platform for his commitment to “communications for social justice.” He joined a center in 1995 for help using a computer he’d been given and, through the center, became connected with other homeless people via the Internet. In 1997 Terry established his own Internet mailing list and website for homeless and formerly homeless people. “The cross fertilization of ideas and information from around the country and the world is very important,” he says, “now we have a venue where people who are involved [in homeless issues] can trade information as their campaigns are ongoing.”
EDC’s 1998 study of 817 people at 44 centers found that:
- 87% reported the center had made a difference in their lives
- 86% use the centers because they’re friendly and safe places to be
- 75% of center users were students, either in high school, vocational or trade school, or adult education programs
- 67% visited their center at least once a week
- 64% changed their attitudes toward computers from very negative to very positive
- 41% reported being much closer to their goal of increased self-confidence
- 38% took academic (GED, ABE, ESL) classes
- 29% saw socializing as a very important aspect of the center
- 21% formed new friendships through their center
- 13% secured new jobs through their center
As the movement has grown—about a hundred centers have joined the network in each of the past two years—the centers themselves have evolved, in some cases moving from serving individual users to becoming important resources for local businesses and service organizations. This year, as the NSF support for the CTCNet ends, CTCNet enters a new phase as an independent, non-profit organization. Guilfoy and her colleagues hope that their detailed statistics-rich studies and center self-evaluation tools will help center staff demonstrate the effectiveness of CTCs and attract new funding. For Guilfoy, “These centers are a critical piece in this continuing wave of using technology. In addition to providing access, they’re showing us many successful models for how community technology transforms peoples’ lives, their work, and their neighborhoods.”
Originally published on July 31, 2000