Creating Community through Public Computer Centers

Blog Post
Dec. 3, 2013

This is the second of four blog posts about the Freedom Rings Partnership in Philadelphia and its KEYSPOT program, funded by the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

One unexpected outcome of the KEYSPOT program was how the computer centers became hubs of community engagement. Public computer centers and classroom settings helped cultivate a collective sense of belonging among KEYSPOT participants. This culture of belonging is about both what happens on site, such as participants bonding as they discover broadband together, and what occurs virtually, like when participants connect with social networks online. Participants also felt invested in or connected to the success of the KEYSPOT program itself.Though not a primary reason for participants’ KEYSPOT usage, the community feeling, the comfortable and safe environments for digital learning, kept participants coming back to sites.

Engagement Offline and Online In our survey, community-oriented KEYSPOT usage trailed workforce, education, and skills-based ones: only 4.5 percent of survey respondents selected “social networking” and 2.5 percent selected coming “to participate in their community” as their main reason for attending a KEYSPOT. Across all participant focus groups, however, according to several impassioned participants, community helped motivate attendance at KEYSPOTs. One participant said, “I had some good experiences with the class, bonding with people that had the same thing in common with me. So, I didn't feel out of place, because other people were struggling with the same things I was struggling with.” Many participants spoke about returning to KEYSPOTs on multiple occasions due to the sense of community fostered at computer centers. In some instances participants complained about noisy public computer centers with too much socializing.

Similar stories surfaced in Webguide focus groups. A Webguide explained, “I have a lot of people coming in just for the community. They make friends there.”

Across all three participant focus groups, several participants offered powerful stories of virtually connecting with family, friends, and colleagues, particularly through using Facebook. One participant recalled how Facebook allowed her to keep in touch with her church group who had traveled to Malawi to provide healthcare to local residents. Another participant described a more active use of Facebook during the 2012 election: “I was using my Facebook as sort of a platform, not to tell just people in Philly... but people all over the country, ‘Go and vote. Do your thing.’”

Staff shared a number of detailed accounts of how participants connected with online virtual communities. One trainer spoke about a Spanish-speaking participant who applied newly minted computer skills to use Skype and reach out for the first time in years to her son in another country. Another staff person said, “We had [a story] of a father getting on Facebook and communicating with his children for the first time in twenty years.”

Home Away from Home In interviews and focus groups, the creation of a comfortable space for learning surfaced as a recurrent theme. One staff member summarized their approach, “We [try to be] a welcoming place [where] they can feel at home... I think that's a big part of learning—that you're comfortable learning and there's a sense of order and accomplishment.”

KEYSPOTs also occasionally functioned as sanctuaries that sheltered individuals from the problems or dangers in their daily lives. One participant living in transitional housing said, “Especially when I’m stressed out from work or something, I use [the KEYSPOT] as a respite.” One Webguide brought a video game console to a KEYSPOT as a reward for youth who completed their homework, saying, “Parents don’t want [their children] out too late and traveling around the area. So [many] times, you get a lot people that come through the [KEYSPOT]... for a total of five hours. They love the games.”

Peer Learning Qualitative data show the significance of peer learning—both spontaneously generated and intentionally structured—in creating a sense of belonging among participants. The theme of giving and receiving help from classmates throughout the learning process came up in all three participant focus groups. Participants spoke about finding “buddies” who exchanged class material during absences and shared computer and Internet knowledge with one another. “KEYSPOTs are people-friendly. You get to meet different people from all walks of life that want to help you,” one participant said.

In addition to spontaneous moments of peer support, several trainers also mentioned peer learning exercises. Often they introduced peer learning as a way to leverage the skills of advanced students for the purpose of aiding less knowledgeable ones. One Webguide established a “bartering program,” based on his knowledge of participants, to deal with different skill levels. Younger participants paired with older participants to improve their digital skills. In return, the older participants taught non-digital lessons to the younger participants like playing the piano. According to the Webguide, this technique connected students, helping to bridge generational and digital divides simultaneously.

The degree of community connection revealed in this evaluation complements other qualitative studies that discuss effects of digital inclusion efforts on community health. For example, one study found a strong connection between building digital capacity and increasing community control of its collective wellbeing—what the authors refer to as digital human capital. Previous research on cybercafés and community informatics in developing countries also highlight the qualitative, community-building effects of providing digital access, in both offline and online communities. When it comes to digital inclusion, community matters too.

Since the Evaluation Perhaps the outcome that receives the least attention, the importance of community connections at KEYSPOT sites and made by participants is a critical part of the success story of the FRP’s effort. On another level, the important work of the Partnership and the community formed among the organizations working on KEYSPOT resulted in the formation of a new initiative that has already held a city-wide conference on digital divide and poverty. Technology Learning Collaborative KEYSPOT Host Tech Sunday Free Gospel Concert