Digital Divide Disappears … Or Maybe Not

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Tacoma, Wash.—It’s early afternoon at the Pierce County Boys & Girls Club, where youth worker Ron Andrade sits in a back room helping a small group of youths blend digital photos with graphics software to produce a 360-degree panorama of the club. Their creation will form the basis of a virtual walkthrough of the center, which the kids will design and post on the Web.

A powerful team of foundations and high-tech corporations created this multimedia lab just one year ago through its national PowerUP campaign, which pledged to help close the “digital divide” between America’s disadvantaged and more well-off youth.

But now that team is pulling the financial plug on the program that launched this and 956 other PowerUP sites around the country.

The digital divide, they say, is closing.

Not enough for youth workers at computer centers such as Andrade’s Building Opportunity Through Technology Labs, which teaches skills such as keyboarding, building websites and managing computer networks. But PowerUP’s October announcement coincides with the thinking of the Bush administration, which has proposed eliminating the Department of Education’s $110 million Community Technology Centers (CTC) program and the Commerce Department’s Technology Opportunities Program (TOP), which has awarded close to $200 million in grants.

The White House says that so much progress has been made in closing the digital divide that private industry can take over from here.

PowerUP said the economic downturn, especially in the technology industry, has severely hurt many of its corporate backers. PowerUP, based in McLean, Va., began in 1999 with funding from America Online’s Steve Case, the Waitt Family Foundation and technology companies such as Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard.

The severity of the blow is yet to be determined, but PowerUP has been credited with helping to close the digital divide and bring other technology companies into the youth development arena.

Still forging ahead is the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network, which has 60 sites around the country and is expanding overseas. The Clubhouse and other backers of digital divide campaigns, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, argue that the gap is as wide as ever, although different from before.

They say that while most youth have some access to computer hardware now, those who are poor, minorities or live in rural areas have limited access and need a lot of help to use that hardware to its fullest potential – and to reach their own.

“The digital divide began as a divide in access to technology,” said Roma Arellano, program manager for the Computer Clubhouse at Intel. “Today, it’s a divide in access to skills, and a lack of the ability for people to express themselves using these new tools.”

Off Line About Online?

Much of the current debate has its roots in a U.S. Commerce Department report published in February, “A Nation Online,” which argued that the gap in access to computers and the Internet that favored the more affluent is rapidly shrinking. Among its findings:

• Ninety percent of children between 5 and 17 years old were using computers on a regular basis.

• About 75 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds and 65 percent of 10- to 13-year-olds use the Internet regularly.

• From December 1998 to September 2001, Internet use in families earning less than $15,000 a year increased 25 percent annually, while use in families earning more than $75,000 increased at just 11 percent a year (though from a much higher base).

Computers at schools had substantially narrowed the gap in computer use between children from high- and low-income families.

• By September 2001, the percentage of Internet users in rural areas was almost the same as the national average.

“With more than half of all Americans using computers and the Internet, we are truly a nation online,” the report said.

Others disagree.

The Bush administration and its backers on this issue “have seriously misread the data,” Bob Pearlman, former president of the San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk Foundation, wrote in response to the report and the administration’s actions to cut funding.

The report’s figures, he noted, showed that three-quarters of America’s poorest households were still not online in late 2001, compared with just 20 percent of homes earning more than $75,000. Minorities such as Hispanics and blacks were significantly less likely than whites to have Internet access at home.

A July “snapshot report” by the Casey Foundation’s Kids Count questioned the timing of the announced cuts in federal funding. As the importance of technology in the workplace and the home continues to increase, it said, the opportunities for young people with “21st century skills” focused on the Internet and computer-related technologies are also expanding.

“How will the increased reliance on computers and the Internet affect outcomes for kids in low-income central-city neighborhoods where 84 percent of households with children did not have a computer?” the report said.

The cuts in the federal CTC and TOP programs are particularly damaging because they require matching grants that leverage funds provided by state and local government and private organizations, said Norris Dickard, director of public policy at the Benton Foundation in Washington, D.C.

The Bush administration believes the activities these programs funded can be better addressed by block grants to the states, but those generally don’t allow for support of community technology centers that serve a wide range of clients.

As for PowerUP, spokesperson Denise Keyes said, “The digital divide has not yet been closed, that’s true, though perhaps it has narrowed. … And there are many more players in the field now, which wasn’t true when PowerUP started.”

Do administrators at PowerUP sites think the digital divide is small enough to lose such a big funder?

“Far from it,” said Carlos Rodriguez, assistant administrator of the Urban League Family Technology Center in Newark, N.J. He said computer equipment “is still overpriced,” and his agency always needs money to keep up with new technology.

But at the Bridgeport Area Youth Ministries in Connecticut, Executive Director George Stowell said his existing equipment will probably be good for several years. Although computers “will always be changing,” he said, “technology is available if people want to access it.”

How to Go Forward

So how will this change affect Andrade and the Building Opportunity Through Technology Labs that he directs at the Boys & Girls Club in Tacoma?

The PowerUP sites won’t go dark overnight. They will keep the hardware and software that were provided under the program and are still eligible for free AOL accounts, Keyes said. Free technical support will be offered to those that have formed since October 2001, she said, and some PowerUP staff are working with the technology centers on sustainability.

But PowerUP’s closure shows that the economy is prompting many companies to pull back from these community efforts, which Benton’s Dickard said raises questions of sustainability.

“How do those [technology centers] that are already up and running go forward?” he asked. “The responsibility would then seem to fall on how local governments fund them, but they are having their own problems.

“Those who get the importance of technology will still find ways, but those that don’t might think security people guarding school entrances are a higher priority.”

Finding support for the technology centers is a concern, admitted Robbie Callaway, senior vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (B&GCA), but he doesn’t believe it’s insurmountable.

After all, PowerUP provided a three-year grant of between $35,000 and $70,000 for each lab, composed mainly of “in-kind” provision of such things as computers, networking equipment, printers, AOL accounts and technical support. Clubs were
also expected to come up with their own funding.

Most of the 435 technology labs PowerUP helped set up in B&GCA clubs around the country in the past three years are funded primarily by the private sector – up to 85 percent of total funding in many cases – and Callaway expects that to continue.

The B&GCA hopes to eventually see similar labs in all of its 3,200 sites. “The goal is to change peoples’ ideas of what the Boys & Girls Clubs are about,” Andrade said. “It used to be they looked on us as cheap day care. But we want to turn it into an educational place, where kids can come to learn and work.”

While the national office will try to keep hundreds of the tech centers running, it can’t do that without the kind of corporate support that is now shrinking.

“Some of the [technology] industry folks are hurting, and they have not been as active as they would want to be,” Callaway said. “But they say they will do more when things improve overall, and we take them at their word.”

Seeking Other Federal Sources

That doesn’t mean advocacy groups are standing still. There’s a chance that the No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law on Jan. 8, could produce some funds for digital divide programs, Dickard said, and he and others are investigating ways to make that happen.

And a relatively new group called Digital Promise, founded by former NBC News President Lawrence Grossman and former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minnow, is pushing for the formation of a nonprofit educational agency to be called the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust.

It would be funded from revenues earned by investing money received from FCC-mandated auctions of radio spectrum. Described by backers as the 21st century equivalent of the G.I. Bill, legislation to provide funding for the trust was proposed in the Senate (S 2603) and the House (HR 4641) in the 107th Congress, but didn’t pass.

But Brian Komar, director of strategic affairs for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, looked at the efforts to get government funding to close the digital divide and said, “the picture does look bleak right now.”


Gail Breslow, Director
Intel Computer Clubhouse Network
One Science Park
Boston, MA 02114
(617) 589-0387

Denise Keyes
1615 L St. NW, Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 828-8893

Ron Andrade, Director
BOTTLAB headquarters
East Side Branch
Boys & Girls Clubs of Pierce County
614 E. 64th St.
Tacoma, WA 98404
(253) 284-0393

PowerUP and Clubhouse: Different Styles for Closing the Divide

By Brian Robinson

Programs such as PowerUP and the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network were fashioned in the 1990s to meet the needs of underserved youth and to help bridge the digital divide. But in certain ways, they have tackled the “e-skills divide” very differently.

When it shut down its funding in October, PowerUP was fewer than 50 centers short of its goal of installing 1,000 technology centers worldwide. The Intel Computer Clubhouse Network, based in Boston, is three-quarters of the way to its goal of 100 clubhouses, more than 60 of which are in the United States.

PowerUP provided three-year startup grants of between $35,000 and $70,000 that included computer equipment, Internet accounts and technical support. The Computer Clubhouse pays out a first-year grant of between $150,000 and $200,000 for each of its centers and provides ongoing support for up to three years after that.

Structure and Relationships

One of the “five promises” that PowerUP made to participants was to provide structured activities to help improve their academic performance in the short term, and to give them marketable skills to take into the work force later.

PowerUP didn’t want to “make all of this seem like an extension of the classes they take in school,” said Chief Operating Officer Kevin O’Shaughnessy. So while the sites have structured homework help, they also “have such things as inquiry-based activities and activities that teach entrepreneurial skills.”

However, O’Shaughnessy said, there is be a big difference in operations among the centers, because PowerUP’s head office in McLean, Va., did not dictate how kids use the centers’ resources, and how each center’s staff set up its activities. The only requirement was to provide some form of structured programming.

The Computer Clubhouse operates in a far less structured manner, emphasizing ways to help youth express themselves creatively by using technology, in the process acquiring problem-solving skills and confidence in their abilities that will aid them in the future.

“When the Computer Clubhouse started in 1993, the Internet was not something that was prominent, though since then it’s obviously evolved tremendously,” said Gail Breslow, its long-time director. “What hasn’t changed so much is that many young people are exposed to technology simply as a way to get information and learn specific skills, not as a way of self-expression.”

When young people first hear of a Computer Clubhouse they tend to see it simply as a way to get access to the Internet, she said. While that’s “not evil,” the clubhouses see themselves more as enablers for youth to express their ideas and interests through technology.

“We don’t have computer games at the Computer Clubhouse,” Breslow said. “If a person wants a game, they have to build it themselves.”

Other computer-based activities include building websites, creating music and shooting and editing films. Visitors can choose not to use the computers at all and just socialize with others, which makes the clubhouses feel less like classrooms and more like youth centers.

“People make a choice to be there, and then they make a choice about what they want to do once they do get there,” Breslow said. “That’s very empowering for a young person.”

Where both programs agree is in using their sites as havens for young people who might have few other places to go after school where they feel safe. Adult staff and volunteers help the youths on projects, but they are also encouraged to form relationships with them.

One major systemic problem is recruiting and retaining volunteer mentors, said Breslow. It’s hard to find people who are willing to commit their time week-in, week-out to the program in the way that’s needed if the relationships that are built up with the clubhouse members are to be maintained.

“We try to get mentors to understand that relationships don’t happen overnight and that the Computer Clubhouse is all about relationships,” she said.

Tech Companies’ Motives

The technology companies that provide most of the financial backing and other resources for both programs view them from a classic philanthropic stance, but also as potential incubators of future homegrown technology talent – something they’ve seen as an endangered species since the height of the dot-com years.

Technology companies hope programs such as PowerUP and the Computer Clubhouse will help them find and train potential recruits for their businesses. Network equipment manufacturer Cisco Systems was a PowerUP backer.

Semiconductor giant Intel provided seed money for the Computer Clubhouse when the clubhouse was founded nine years ago by the Computer Museum in Boston with the MIT Media Laboratory. For several years Intel has run an ongoing innovation and education program aimed at improvements in math, science and technology, said Roma Arellano, the company’s Computer Clubhouse program manager. “But we found the bulk of the spending was impacting just the formal education,” she said.

“As we saw the growing digital divide” in recent years, she said, “we decided we wanted to do something to address that. We began looking at various after-school programs and went back to take a look at the Computer Clubhouse, and were very impressed with what it had accomplished. So we decided to put the money into an expansion” of the program.

It saw a match in how the Computer Clubhouse worked with youth and the way that the need for skills in its own employees had changed in recent years toward the ability to work in teams, and to apply problem-solving from one end of the technology process to the other.

“What appealed to us was the notion that this program seemed to hit these things on the head, down to the way the computers were set up, how all of the chairs had wheels on them, and how the kids were encouraged to work out the software tools for themselves and to work together on projects,” Arellano said.

Progress, Problems

Recent evaluations show that both programs have had success in the early stages in meeting their overarching goals of providing resources for underserved youth, but that there are considerable problems to overcome.

An assessment of PowerUP – conducted by Lisa Schneider, its former senior director of research and evaluation, and the Evaluate Group, an independent assessment organization – found that despite “encouragingly high” overall attendance numbers, lack of transportation is a big barrier to maximum use at many of the centers.

Many of the youths’ families don’t own cars, public transportation is not available in many areas, and school buses will drop kids off but won’t take them home after hours.

In its first year report from a three-year evaluation of the Computer Clubhouse, the New York-based Center for Children and Technology found wide variations in progress at clubhouse sites, especially in the different levels of knowledge among clubhouse coordinators for creating and maintaining social environments.

Taking aim at the vital role youth workers play, the report says: “As the [Computer Clubhouse] continues to grow and as existing sites continue to develop their programs, it is becoming extremely urgent to establish more, and more varied, forms of sustained support and guidance for clubhouse coordinators.”

The final report, due next year, will include tools to help coordinators better understand where kids stand in terms of their abilities and interests, and diagnose how well each center meets the goals of the program, said Tisha Pryor, an associate program director with the technology center.

The Clubhouse has also maintained its own, less formal evaluations that provide the basis for future developments. Sign-in forms on computers at each of its clubhouses, for example, have amassed nine years worth of “very powerful” data that show girls use the clubhouses in very different ways from boys, Breslow said.

PowerUP’s internal evaluations were limited to making sure each site kept to the terms of its initial grant proposal and was supplied with the essentials to provide a service for its members.

Despite the uncertain future of these and similar technology programs, their advocates say kids need more.

“What these technology programs bring,” said Schneider, now an independent youth development consultant, “is help for kids to build the skills they might not otherwise have a chance to obtain, which has given them better life options than they might have otherwise.”