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Study Analyzes Efforts To Bring Technology to Distressed Areas

Study Analyzes Efforts To Bring Technology to Distressed Areas
By Ronald Roach


A Penn State researcher says the lack of community-based programs and resources to equip and sustain underserved populations with significant information technology skills can override the effect of basic efforts to bring information technology to distressed communities.

According to Dr. Lynette Kvasny’s study, “The Challenges of Redressing the Digital Divide: A Tale of Two Cities,” basic information technology literacy conveys only a marginal impact on the ability of underserved groups to take advantage of the economic opportunities commonly associated with IT expertise. Among her 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: IT program participants receive limited benefits from their new technology skills and sometimes end up frustrated or turned off by technology.

“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. 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,” says Kvasny, an assistant professor in the school of information sciences and technology at Penn State University.

Kvasny’s conclusions come from her research of two Georgia cities that implemented technology initiatives to address the digital divide. The study examined programs implemented in Atlanta and LaGrange, Ga.

During Kvasny’s research, Atlanta officials 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.

Officials in LaGrange also devised a digital divide program innovation — 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 work-force 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. Free Internet access didn’t prove to make regular IT users out of the program participants, according to Kvasny.

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 — did not. 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 says. “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 notes.

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