Wow, We Have Computers! … Now What?

Print More

After Hurricane Floyd slammed the East Coast last September, the kids at PowerUp in San Jose, Calif., hit the Internet. Their mission was charity - but in a larger sense, they were showing how to finally blend high-tech and youth development in a meaningful way.

The youths' Internet research led them to the Dillard Academy School in Goldsboro, N.C., which was severely damaged by floods. Soon Dillard was flooded again - this time by books from the kids at the PowerUp technology center, who wrote letters to the students and screened the donated volumes to see what would be most appropriate for them.

It was a rare example of using technology for real youth development, rather than just games or boosting school performance. When it comes to computers, many youth development programs take a Field of Dreams approach: Boot it, and they will come. That doesn't cut it, says Tracy Gray, vice president of youth services at the Va.-based Morino Institute, which helps institutions use the Internet more effectively. Unless creative youth programming goes with the technology, she says, "you might as well use old-fashioned tools such as crayons and pens."

Yet when the institute conducted a national survey several years ago of youth development programs to see how well they had integrated technology into their youth service operations, it found few that had done so successfully. Many organizations, Gray says, "claimed they'd beefed up the whole program just by having technology there."

When one does find a substantial use of technology for youth it is likely to be academic-based, a la the U.S. Department of Education's $453 million, school-based 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

But a recent flurry of activity shows that youth-serving organizations are boosting their investments in technology, as well as their investments in using computers to their full youth development potential:

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America plans to create 100 technology centers in 10 years through Project Connect, designed to develop models for good use of technology in youth development. Compaq Computer Corp. provided a $1.2 million grant, while Microsoft Corp. and basketball star Shaquille O'Neal kicked in $2.4 million. At the 10 centers already running, youth workers are trained, not only in computer technology, but in creating innovate programs around a core curriculum, customized to the interests of the kids at each center.PowerUp - an untested Santa Cruz, Calif., nonprofit backed by America Online Inc., Gateway Inc., Microsoft and other high-tech companies - joined forces last year to establish as many as 250 youth technology centers by the end of this year. Armed with an initial $10 million grant from the Case Foundation (set up by AOL Chief Executive Officer Steve Case and his wife, Jean), PowerUp hopes to use classrooms and youth centers provided by organizations such as the YMCA, the National Urban League (NUL) and Save the Children.So far, PowerUp has gotten a mixed reaction from leaders of national youth-serving organizations, who wonder how far it will go beyond providing hardware and software.The YMCA, aside from its work with PowerUp, has technology-based programs in one of every five of its centers. They use a "service development" approach based on either set curricula or the kids' interests at each center. "We focus on what their needs are and build projects around them," says YMCA project coordinator Shawn Dunn. The YMCA discovered that kids won't come to the centers just to use the technology. "That's so important to understand," Dunn says. "Kids won't just come to a computer class. You need to incorporate the technology into the other things that they do at the centers, such as sports activities."

Washington recognizes the problem as well. In a visit last month to Plugged In, a youth technology center in East Palo Alto, Calif., President Clinton said, "All the computers and software and Internet connections in the world won't do much good if young people don't understand that access to new technology means access to new learning opportunities, new job opportunities, new entrepreneurial opportunities - access to the new economy."

The president is touting several youth technology initiatives, including $2 billion in tax incentives for computer donations to tech centers, libraries and schools, and asking Congress for $100 million to duplicate community tech centers such as Plugged In.

'Major Barriers'

Creating effective technology-based programs is difficult even for agencies that already have some expertise. Several Boys & Girls Clubs sites (such as Minneapolis, Minn., and the East Valley club in Tempe, Ariz.) have used computers in their youth programs for years and were consulted for the organizations' three-year strategic plan, which includes technology. Still, there were stumbling blocks.

"The biggest lesson we learned in our first year was that the cost of technology is a lot more than the cost of the computers alone," says Ed Mishrell, vice president for program services at B&GCA headquarters in Atlanta. "You particularly have to figure enough into the budget for technical support. We did put something for that into our pilot project, but not nearly enough."

Youth worker training is vital. "We trained one person in each club as the main support contact, but we eventually want to train everyone at the clubs," Mishrell says. "The goal is to have someone such as the athletic director be able to come in and know how to use the technology."

But the training can't stop at how to use the technology itself, says Ellen Wahl, senior scientist at the Center for Children and Technology in New York, and a former director of national programs at Girls Inc. What to use the technology for and the continual upgrading of that knowledge are "major, major barriers," she says.

"Learning to be a critic is one of the major empowering skills [for youths], and that depends on having time available in out-of-school areas to engage in such things as long-term projects," she says. People might justifiably look to schools to provide those skills, "but the fact is that schools don't have teachers who know how to support inquiry, and that's what's needed to help kids to be producers and creators."

This Isn't School

Speaking of schools, Magda Escobar, executive director of Plugged In - one of the oldest technology-based youth programs in the country - issues what could be a youth work Golden Rule: "Try not to make it like a school atmosphere."

That's a tough sell at the U.S. Department of Education and at foundations, such as C.S. Mott, that fund academic-based after-school programs.

"Part of the burden of the information age is that learning doesn't end at 3 p.m.," says B. Keith Fulton, director of technology programs and policy at the National Urban League in New York. "At the local level, people who send their kids to youth or community centers would be exuberant if they saw improvement at school also, so there is certainly a push at that level."

Fulton admits that school and youth centers are "inherently different places. The centers have to be fun, or the kids won't come. But I'm not convinced either that they have to be divorced from the educational experience. It depends on the people in those centers knowing more about what interests kids."

That could mean paying less attention to the actual technology. The goal at the PowerUp center in San Jose is to make the experience fun and interactive, and not have the kids "glued to the computer screen for 45 minutes at a time," says Ameya Bijoor, an AmeriCorps-VISTA volunteer who helps to run the center.

Bijoor says the center plans to use the Hurricane Floyd project and other technology efforts to develop a resource book showing how youth-serving agencies can blend computers and public service, "to show them [kids] how to give back to the community."

Show Results

Focusing on youth development, however, does not relieve an agency of the burden to show results. The federal government is increasingly making regular evaluations of technology-based programs a part of its funding. Private funders are becoming equally demanding.

"We don't support any application of technology in youth programs unless they are very specific programs," says Gale Cirigliano, director of technology programs for the Bell Atlantic Foundation. "And the results of the program have to be measurable, and the proposers should be able to provide detailed feedback after the program has been in place for a year."

For a youth program that proposes to use technology in a career development application, for example, the foundation would require evidence that participants had not only learned how to use the technology correctly, but would want to know how many youths had come into the program, how many graduated, and how many landed jobs where they used those skills.

"We look for things [best practices] that can be easily replicated by other youth programs," she says.

The youth development field is in an exploratory and learning phase, says Phyllis Meadows, program director at the Kellogg Foundation. Philanthropies such as Kellogg "are only now starting to ask how we can take the information we have and organize it internally, and then infuse that throughout our grant making."

"We are just starting to see what areas can benefit from technology, and how we can use best practices in ensuring they do."

Beyond If

Despite all of this apparent activity, technology still doesn't make the top of most youth and community development organizations' lists of concerns, says Karen Chambers, project coordinator of the Community Technology Centers' Network in Waltham, Mass. At most of the national conferences she attends, technology "maybe ranks a single track at best," behind perennial concerns such as sustainability, grant writing and finding funds.

There is progress, however, says Fulton of the Urban League. At the least, organizations are "over the hurdle of seeing technology as an esoteric concern, which was the case in the 1980s and early 1990s."

The issue now is what technology is needed in youth programs and how to apply it consistent with positive youth development, he says, rather than if it's needed at all.