Computers in churches, laundromats may bridge digital divide

December 18, 2002

Pouring thousands of dollars into providing access to information technology may seem like a step forward in bridging the digital divide, but without community-based, innovative programs to help historically underserved minorities and low-income groups sustain their new skills, the gap will only widen, says a Penn State researcher.

"We make assumptions that technology is a great enabler, and that if we bring technology to historically underrepresented groups, we will improve people's life chances and their ability to participate in society," said Lynette Kvasny, assistant professor in the School of Information Sciences and Technology. "The technology needs to be integrated into people's lives to be sustainable, so we need to put it where people go for social networking - in barber shops, laundromats, churches, and community spaces in housing projects. Otherwise, we've invested millions of dollars in initiatives that end up folding."

Kvasny's conclusions are based on a study of two Georgia cities that had implemented technology initiatives to address the divide between those with Internet access and computer training and those without.

What she found was that basic IT literacy had only marginal success in helping underserved groups access the economic opportunities that are commonly linked with IT expertise. Those non-traditional users - minorities, rural populations and inner-city and low-income residents - remained somewhat excluded from the information society.

Her research, based on interviews, is detailed in "The Challenges of Redressing the Digital Divide: A Tale of Two Cities," a paper that she authored with Mark Keil, Department of Computer Information Systems, Georgia State University. Kvasny will present the research today (Dec. 18) at the International Conference on Information Systems in Barcelona, Spain.

Among Kvasny's findings are that most disadvantaged social groups generally are exposed to technology training for the shortest length of time and face difficulties in sustaining their use of technology beyond the initial classroom training. The result: Program participants receive limited benefits from their new technology skills and sometimes end up frustrated or turned off by technology.

"A lot of digital divide initiatives focus on technology, but there also are people issues, and those barriers can be harder to address," Kvasny said.

For this study, Kvasny and Keil researched the different technology initiatives implemented in Atlanta and LaGrange, a city of 27,000 residents about 60 miles southwest of Atlanta.

During Kvasny's research, Atlanta opened seven community technology centers where residents were offered free use of and training on computers. The underlying assumption was that residents who learned IT skills could convert those into opportunities that would bring about economic empowerment and increase community involvement.

LaGrange officials also came up with a "first" - free and fast Internet access in residents' homes by means of Web-television, a device that allowed Internet browsing using a TV screen. A program goal was to encourage workforce education for residents whose skills had left them out of sync in the digital society. LaGrange is home to 35 major companies needing IT-skilled employees.

But free access didn't make as many users as hoped.

In LaGrange, while residents with some IT knowledge took advantage of the free offer, many in the target population - those in the public housing projects - didn't, Keil found. Although Internet access was free, it depended upon cable, and many residents couldn't afford the subscription. Other residents felt intimidated by the technology so opted not to participate while some were deterred by the lack of printing and storage capabilities.

"Putting technology into the home often is presented as the ideal, but it isn't the solution either," Kvasny said. "People need a learning environment where they can interact with others, so they have social and technical support when they have problems."

The Atlanta centers drew more participants, but some were disappointed by the lack of advanced training. While all participants reported benefits such as improved access to relevant information and greater self-esteem, many felt they gained only low-level technical skills, insufficient for translating into economic opportunities.

"Programs addressing the digital divide with the best chance of success are those in public areas where people normally frequent and where the technology is not an intrusion but is integrated into their daily lives and routines," Kvasny said.

Penn State

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