Spring 2003

Building Community Technology Capacity Through Service Learning
by Karla Back and William Reed and Cheryl Willis

Community Technology Capacity In Houston

A seminar with CTC leaders introducing them to the TFA/UH College of Technology parnternship. CTCs represented include: Shape Community Center, Spring Branch Family Development Center, Boyton Chapel United Methodist Church, Tejano Learning Center and the LULAC National Education Service Center (Houston Office)

Since 1997, Technology For All-Houston (TFA-Houston) has helped create, develop and support over 170 community technology centers (CTCs) in collaboration with grass-roots community based organizations across the greater Houston area. These CTCs and their organizations serve a vital need in their underserved communities. Their greatest assets are the passion with which they serve their communities and the community credibility they have with their constituents because it. However, in many cases these CTCs have limited funding, small staffs and limited technical capacity. Thus, they are limited in their effectiveness.

As the nonprofit serving the Houston area to support and encourage local grass roots community technology efforts, TFA-Houston provides best practice seminars, consulting services, sharing of resources (hardware and software), and encouragement activities for community technology practitioners. In past years, when more funding was available, TFA-Houston also provided technical support to many CTCs at no cost to the CTCs. Providing this service was cost and labor intensive for TFA-Houston. In addition, this service had limited impact on the larger CTC community of Houston because the small staff (two full-time and four part-time employees) could only serve a small percentage of the CTCs. We have also learned, upon further evaluation, that the original model of free technical services built CTC dependency rather than CTC capacity.

The revised model, which now includes limited fees for services and shared "sweat equity" also includes a unique service learning approach developed in collaboration with the University Houston that builds technology capacity in CTCs through collaborative student projects. These projects are documented and shared among other CTCs across the community. The benefits of this program have been huge to Houston CTCs. In addition to building technology capacity, this approach has created a unique forum for collaboration and dialogue among CTCs as students and CTCs meet together to create solutions to challenges that face multiple CTCs across the city.

A Service Learning Approach

Introducing Community Service Learning as a teaching method allowed the University of Houston (UH) College of Technology to promote student learning through active participation in meaningful and planned student project teams developing a variety of technology solutions to build technology capacity in the Houston area CTCs. Examples of the student team projects included developing Technology Infrastructure Plans for new or existing CTCs; designing and building volunteer or student databases to track existing and future program offerings; and designing and piloting mentoring and training programs for Technology Learning Coaches.

An important aspect of this learning experience for these Information Systems Technology (IST) students is the opportunity to take the knowledge and skills they are learning in the classroom in project management, team leadership, and communication, and problem-solving, and apply these skills in a real technology project team experiences, working with a local CTC. Through reflective activities, students enhance their understanding of course content, general knowledge, sense of civic responsibility, self-awareness and commitment to the community.

Another aspect of the Capacity-building Community Technology Outreach Program (CCTOP) is that it meets actual needs of the Houston area CTCs and is integrated into the student's curriculum as a required course for all Information Systems Technology students. The purpose behind designing this course in this manner was to provide a structured learning opportunity for IST students to reflect on their learnings and communicate their thoughts (through the use of Learning Journals) about the service they are engaged in. One specific learning outcome of the course is that the student will develop a sense of caring for others and give back to the community. Other critical skills that are developed throughout the course are enhanced problem solving, how to work effectively in project teams, and engagement skills.

In our second semester offering this required course in the College of Technology, we have found that students are excited and surprised by the value and expertise they are able to bring to the local CTCs. Many of the students had no awareness of the digital divide, or how they could help close that gap in their own community—using skills they were learning in the BS Degree in Information Systems Technology. We are currently identifying other Information Technology courses that service learning methodology can be successfully integrated into in the future.

Suggestions For Replication

This collaborative capacity building effort has just begun. Even so, there are already several important lessons learned. To build community technology capacity in your community using a service learning approach, the following suggestions are offered:

  • Choose projects that can be easily scaled and replicated with other CTCs
  • Clearly define project deliverables and timelines
  • Assign key persons within each institution to manage the project relationships
  • Engage CTCs in the evaluation of student project teams
  • Recognize and plan for capacity building that occurs with individual CTCs and with other CTCs in the community as projects are documented and shared
  • Provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the CTC and its constituents/clients
  • Create “"celebration" events to recognize students and CTCs

For more information contact will.reed@techforall.org or call 713-961-0012.

Karla M. Back is an Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for the Masters Degree in Technology Project Management in the College of Technology at the University of Houston/University Park.

William S. Reed is President and Chief Executive Officer of Technology For All (TFA) and Technology For All-Houston. He was one of the founding board members of Technology For All-Houston in 1997.

Cheryl L. Willis is Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of Information Systems Technology in the Department of Industrial Technology in the College of Technology at the University of Houston/University Park. She is the lead faculty consultant and creator of the "Capacity Building-Community Technology Outreach Project."

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