WMU News

Students to help bridge digital divide

Jan. 25, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- A community-wide effort to bridge Kalamazoo's digital divide will get some help from area college students.

College students are being recruited to serve as volunteer "computer tutors" for the Kalamazoo Partnership for Learning Technology program, a U.S. Department of Education-funded initiative that provides computer access and training in some of Kalamazoo's most needy neighborhoods.

The Kalamazoo Alliance for Service Learning, comprised of Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Davenport University, is coordinating the KPLT's effort to recruit college students to volunteer in the program's Community Technology Centers.

According to Wendy Wintermute, KASL coordinator and project director of the Building Bridges program at WMU, the digital divide is still quite prominent for economically disadvantaged individuals and providing computers and software is not the total solution to the problem.

"Locating computers for public use is the first challenge, but many individuals will become discouraged or avoid using a computer unless they are guided through the process by a knowledgeable, caring mentor," says Wintermute.

College students make ideal mentors, says Dan Stauffer, who is coordinating the recruitment and training of the computer tutors. "They are already computer savvy and know the basics of Windows and how to get around on the Internet. For many of them, this is an ideal opportunity to get out in the community and use their skills in computers, teaching and training."

As computer tutors, students are asked to volunteer five to 10 hours a week for the duration of this semester. Each volunteer will undergo ongoing training in which they will learn social and communication skills, including conflict management, ethics and how to work with children and adults. Computer tutors will be assigned to work at one of the CTC sites, which are each staffed and equipped with computers, software programs, Internet connections and networking capabilities. All computer tutor candidates will be subject to background checks before being chosen.

"We've made this convenient for students, as each CTC site is on the Metro bus line and some are within walking distance of campuses," says Stauffer, who hopes to have 20 to 40 volunteers chosen by the end of February.

The computer tutors project is just one facet of the KPLT program, which is collaboration involving the city of Kalamazoo, Boys and Girls Club, New Genesis Inc., Healthy Futures, Michigan State University Extension, Kalamazoo Community in Schools, KASL, and the Kalamazoo Public Library. KPLT was formed to help residents to get access to and training in technology. The nearly $200,000 DOE grant the program received is from monies specifically targeted for communities considered to be economically distressed.

"More than half of Kalamazoo's households are classified as 'very low' or 'low' income," says Wintermute. "The majority of individuals living at or below the poverty level cannot afford computer equipment or Internet access in their homes. Consequently, many adults and children in Kalamazoo County lack the computer skills needed to research career and educational topics, locate physical and mental health information on the Internet, and perform basic software functions that are essential in today's workplaces."

Six Computer Technology Centers have been established in neighborhoods that have particularly high rates of residents at low or moderate income levels. The centers are located at the City of Kalamazoo Youth Development Center; Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo; New Genesis Inc.; and the central, Washington Heights and Eastwood branches of the Kalamazoo Public Library.

For more information, contact Stauffer at (269) 387-8716 or Wintermute at (269) 387-8944.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 269 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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