Ten Lessons for Your New Community Technology Center

Ten Lessons for Your New Community Technology Center

Getting a new perspective on your CTC

By: Josh Senyak

June 20, 2000

The Community Technology Center (or CTC) has evolved as the premier weapon in the battle to close the digital divide. The CTC provides technology access, resources, support and training for people in low-income or isolated areas. It's usually open to the general public and supported by strong community involvement.

In 1995, the California Wellness Foundation launched Computers in Our Future, an ambitious five-year, $6 million project to develop eleven CTCs across California. As technical assistance providers to the project in its first four years, we had the privilege of working with the 11 centers through their early growing pains and many victories. Here's a quick distillation of some key lessons we learned from working with this outstanding group (and with several others since). We hope they'll save you some trouble and heartache as you plan your new CTC. If your center is already running, perhaps they will bring a fresh perspective.

  1. Guide your users: Many new visitors to the center will need considerable guidance when they walk in your door. A surprising number of first-time CTC visitors have never used a computer before. Don't let them waste their own time (and your center's resources) with aimless gaming or Web surfing. Every user should be working on something specific and worthwhile. Some centers ask users to develop a personal "technology education plan" with clear goals and objectives. Others keep handouts of self-paced projects as suggestions for those who aren't sure where to go next.

    An intake interview is a good tool for assessing each new user's abilities, interests, and goals. It's also a great opportunity to orient new users to the services and ground rules of your center.

    While structure and guidance are important, they have to be balanced with the "open access" that is the soul of the CTC. An atmosphere of openness and adventure encourages participants to make full, creative use of the center's resources. The more a center opens itself to the community, the fuller the spectrum of participants. Users begin to work together, learn from each other, and grow into the inventors of the center's future direction.

  2. Treat technology as a path, not a destination: When a Community Technology Center is first being developed, attention naturally focuses on the exciting promise of community technology. Computers are important tools for everyday life in the 21st century, and computer skills are often helpful for employment success. But most CTCs soon reach an important maturation point, when the center leaders begin to understand the limitations of technology as well. Despite early enthusiasm, it turns out that homework done using "The Computer" isn't necessarily any better than homework done on a yellow pad. An hour spent blasting Aliens from the Slime Planet on a 500-MHz Pentium is hard to distinguish from an hour of television carnage.

    What matters isn't the experience of using computers, but the quality of that experience. Help users see themselves as producers, not consumers, in the world of information technology. Don't let them drift passively through the Web. Show them how to create their own websites. Teach them how to use desktop publishing, animation tools and programming languages-not as ends in themselves, but as tools for expressing their individual interests and creativity.

  3. Take advantage of what others have accomplished: The lab is packed, the server is rumbling like an old Buick, the volunteer instructor called in sick, three funding proposals are overdue, and there's nobody in the lab but you, the director. Sound familiar? If so, you probably need to find some way to work smarter, not harder.

    The good news is that there are dozens of CTC veterans out there, some with up to twenty years experience in the field. There are also operation manuals, curriculum materials, tech tips, and many other resources-many for little or no cost. CTCNet, a national membership organization that supports Community Technology Centers, is the best place to start for resources and networking. Computers in Our Future and CompuMentor also have resources for CTCs. Search out other CTCs in your area, and make as many field trips as you can.

    A regional affiliation of ten or fifteen centers can be very powerful. Computers in Our Future drew much strength from its "statewide network" of the eleven CTC sites. Center staff met at semi-annual conferences and communicated frequently via email, scheduled phone conferences, and center visits. Setting up the network took a lot of time and coordination, and many of the centers were hesitant to participate at first. But the work paid off in the long run, when centers used the network to share experience, resources, advice and support. United, the CIOF centers had victories in funding and policy change that no center could have achieved alone.

  4. Be clear about who you want to serve and where you want to take them: The lab is reaching capacity. You've had to add class sessions to meet community demand. Funding is high and your center is splashed across the local media. Is your CTC a success?

    Well, maybe. The real test lies in your center's impact on community residents. What, in human terms, do you hope to achieve? Are you aiming to keep high school kids from dropping out? Enhancing employment skills for the working poor? Building English proficiency for new immigrants? Giving elementary school kids a safe, enriched place where they can hang out and work on language arts after school? Open technology access is a big service on its own, of course, but once your center can provide that access, you'll find that it can-and should-do lots more besides.

    Set clear, quantifiable measures for your desired goals. (A professional evaluator can be helpful in designing your measurement process.) Set up a client tracking system and collect numeric data from the very first day of operation. Collect qualitative data on your center's progress as well: photos, stories, samples of users' work. It takes a little extra time, but it really helps tell your story, within your own community as well as to funders and outside supporters.

  5. Don't underestimate the resources needed: A CTC's biggest expenses are staffing and technology. When funding is short, there's a temptation to skimp on these big items. But if you starve either area, you can expect to see your program suffer pretty directly.

    Open access can be particularly staff-intensive. A staff-to-user ratio of one to ten is a good minimum figure for open access periods. After the center director and lab monitors are in place, the remaining staffing budget usually goes to instructors, an employment director, administrative staff and perhaps a technology specialist. Don't forget to factor in costs for staff training (crucial!) and the inevitable turnover. It gets expensive fast.

    If you can't afford to hire all the staff you need, consider using volunteers for selected tasks. Many CTCs integrate volunteerism into their program by requiring volunteer hours for certain types of membership, or by waiving fees for volunteers. Of course, volunteerism is no panacea for staffing problems. It's very difficult to run an effective volunteer program without a reasonably-sized paid staff already on board to provide commitment and continuity. Note too that volunteer time isn't really "free"; building and running the volunteer program will demand the efforts of a volunteer coordinator at least part-time.

    Technology is the other big-ticket item. Hardware, software, networking, ISP and telecommunications services; setting up the system, maintaining and upgrading it, fixing it when it crashes, expanding it; then replacing the whole shebang after a few years when it becomes obsolete-no wonder so many CTC projects look to recycled equipment and donated equipment or services to reduce the technology cost.

    But it may be a question of "pay now or pay later." Donated equipment may arrive late, plundered or inoperable. Since it's free, you don't have much recourse. A patchwork network of mismatched hardware and software may look cheap, but the crashes, incompatibilities and workarounds will sap your time, annoy your users, and drive up your consulting bills.

    You don't need to spend a lot for the latest, greatest technology. You just have to meet your programmatic needs and get a system that's up and stable from day one. Pay the least you can to get it... but get it.

  6. Maintain a good relationship with your parent: CTCs often start life as a new program of an established "parent organization." Prospective parents-and their CTC "children"-need to work carefully on their relationship right from the start.

    A good relationship with a parent organization can really nourish a young CTC. The parent generally brings administrative infrastructure, fundraising ability, facilities, and contacts with agencies and leaders throughout the community.

    But a bad relationship with a parent organization can sink a CTC. Miscommunications over roles, budget, goals and staffing can drain the center's time, energy, morale and funding.

    Be sure that the center and the parent organization are working from the same set of long-term goals. The roles and responsibilities of each should be very clearly defined. Budget and staff commitments are especially sensitive areas that need periodic review. And it's crucial to have close, frequent contact between the center director and the head of the parent organization, especially when the center is first getting established.

  7. Set realistic goals for employment outcomes: Your users will be looking for employment services. In a 1998 survey by CTCNet, 65 percent of surveyed CTC users came to the centers to meet job-related goals. One obvious way CTCs can help job seekers is by developing job-related computer skills. But CTCs also contribute in many other parts of the job search: resume development, online job searches, online tutorials in English as a Second Language and Adult Basic Education, job clubs... The CTC can even help job seekers with something as basic and critical as fostering self-confidence and self-esteem.

    A CTC is a great employment resource in any low-income community. But it's hardly the whole solution. When it comes right down to it, most employers care less about computer skills (especially at the pre-professional level developed in CTCs) than about traditional education, job experience, "workplace readiness" and English proficiency. A CTC can help open some doors of opportunity, but the real barriers to employment remain as stubborn as ever.

    So, set employment goals for your center, but make sure that the goals are realistic given your services and staffing. Note that employment success can take many forms. For example, getting adults into post-secondary employment is a big employment "win," given that each year of such education will typically boost the worker's annual salary by six to twelve percent.

    Employment work is tough. You don't have to do it on your own. Partner with private and public job agencies in your community: job clubs, training organizations, job developers, placement agencies, key employers. They've got the leads and the expertise in job development and placement. You've got the technology, the training resource, and the motivated individuals.

  8. Plan for the long haul: How will you pay the bills after your seed money runs out? Sliding-scale program fees can provide a welcome bit of cash, but it's almost impossible to run a CTC on program fees alone.

    Fortunately, funding possibilities are better than ever, thanks to increasing public awareness of the "Digital Divide." CTCNet is a good place to catch up on the big new funding streams from industry and government. But the real treasure may be buried in your own backyard. Talk with local legislators, businesses, media, community organizations, and government officials. Document your successes, collect the hard outcome numbers, and tell your story well. Above all, make sure that your community is involved in the center from the very beginning. Your challenge is to make the center so critical a resource that the community can't possibly let it close.

  9. Follow the leader: There is one defining factor that makes for a truly great CTC. It's quality of leadership. Resources, program, community involvement are all important, but all these depend directly on the skills, savvy and experience of the center director.

    Hiring a CTC director is a challenge. You're looking for someone with an eclectic blend of technical, organizational and people skills. Here are four of the key skills:

    • Direct service: CTCs are all about human interaction, and a good director must relish being in the thick of it-interviewing new users, greeting familiar faces, keeping up with the progress of users who need extra guidance. Warmth, personal credibility and professionalism are essential.
    • Community outreach: Building a CTC is, in large part, an exercise in community organizing. In the course of a week the center director may be found building bridges with a neighborhood employer, working with a local housing program to help develop their own CTC program, meeting with a neighborhood leader to discuss community education priorities, even working schools and after-school clubs to find new center users. These relationships ensure the center's vitality, growth and community relevance. They're also the foundation of the center's fundraising and sustainability.
    • Program development: What classes should be offered at the CTC? For whom and at what level? Do we need a hardware workshop? How do we bring job seekers from first intake to full employment? Should we buy curriculum materials or create our own? An ideal center director will bring experience in building programs (especially for populations targeted by the CTC, such as youth, seniors or new immigrants). Unfortunately, this experience may be hard to find. Second best is someone who can demonstrate the drive, creativity and persistence needed to develop programs, modify them as needed-and learn from the inevitable mistakes.
    • Technology: We've intentionally saved this for last. It's true that everyone in the center, from the director down to the building janitor, will be called on sooner or later to reset a server or switch a balky network card. But of all the qualities we've discussed, technology skills are probably the easiest to develop. Extensive technical chops are great if available. But, lacking that, the director only needs to demonstrate enough technological knowledge and confidence to set the center's policies and future directions, and to manage the center staff who will specialize in technology.
  10. Stay true to your roots: If we had to sum up all the lessons into one, it might go like this. The CTC is an exciting way to provide technology access and training, especially in low-income or isolated communities. But technology is really only a small part of the equation. Eudora, QuickBooks and NT are all good tools, but they are, finally, only tools. It takes human involvement and commitment to make a difference in people's lives. The CTC is ultimately about the wisdom, caring and experience shared among the center's users, staff, volunteers, supporters, and, eventually, the entire community. Your spirit-and the spirit of the community you serve-must be your ultimate guide. Follow your heart. It's the one thing in your center guaranteed never to need an upgrade.

Faith (for Content):