Home-based Internet access grew steadily in recent years for most of the U.S. population, but adoption stagnated among minorities and the economically disadvantaged.
Fewer than a quarter of households earning less than $20,000 annually have broadband Internet access, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Internet Project. Broadband penetration grew just 12 percent in this income bracket since 2005, according to the surveys.
By contrast, broadband penetration grew by more than 20 percent in every other income bracket. It's often argued that citizens who lack access to technology will be left behind in a society in which computer skills - especially the ability to navigate the Internet - are necessary for jobs, shopping and interacting with government.
Enter the Make It-Take It program, a project of the Florida Institute for the Study of Digital Inclusion. Make It-Take It is designed to give underprivileged children access to technology, computers and related skills. Aside from the long-term benefits of technology literacy, the program teaches skills that could lead students twoard tech-oriented careers.
Using donated and disassembled equipment, the Make It-Take It program teaches children how to build their own computer, load the operating system and install antivirus software. When the course is finished, students take the computers home, and most of them receive complimentary home Internet access for one year.
Students also learn to use common office software - such as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint - gain Internet skills and safety knowledge, and learn how to troubleshoot problems. Through the institute, partnering organizations receive Microsoft licenses to load operating system and Office software for a nominal fee.
A Growing Program
The program started in 2001 with a grant from the Florida Department of Education. Since its inception, the Make It-Take It program has been implemented in counties across Florida and has graduated more than 1,100 students.
The Institute for the Study of Digital Inclusion provides curricula to partnering organizations, but the partners can adjust the material as needed. What's consistent, however, is the sense of ownership the class is meant to instill in students.
"If you take a computer and give it to a child, really, it doesn't have much significance," said Shahram Amiri, CEO of the institute. "We wanted to create a sense of ownership, a sense of the fact that I built this computer."
Once students take the computers home, the benefits are meant to continue. Even though the equipment is donated, there are guidelines to ensure that the equipment won't soon be obsolete.
"We want that computer to last and function for a minimum of two and a half or three years," Amiri said. "Therefore we have to have the right CPU and adequate storage and memory capacity as well as adequate peripherals."
Flagship in Flagler County
One of the first to adopt the program was Flagler County Schools. James Guines, a former school board member, became a crusader for the program in Flagler County after meeting with Amiri through a mutual friend.
"The digital divide is serious," said Guines, who believes it will be the most important problem of this century. "I do truly believe that in this century that the people who have power and control are the ones who can manipulate and use technology for their welfare, and the welfare and benefit of the groups that they work with."
In an effort to bring the program to Flagler County, Guines pitched the Make It-Take It idea to his Rotary Club, the school board and even the local library - none of which were willing to put full support behind the program in the beginning. But Guines eventually gained support from each organization and persuaded local providers to donate equipment, Internet access and space at a
local hospital. The first class was taught working with Habitat for Humanity, and Guines said it was where some of the initial concepts began. The program has since received growing support from the school district and the Rotary Club.
Veronica Maggs, program manager of Flagler County Schools Adult Education, also came on board. Guines credits her with expanding the program to its current level. More than 500 students of all ages have graduated from the Flagler County Make It-Take It program. The program first targeted students who were failing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but it has grown beyond serving at-risk schoolchildren.
"We've had students from the third grade to about 84 years old," said Maggs, who added that classes have been arranged for adults, students with disabilities and veterans.
Because of this, curriculum was developed and adapted for all types of learning styles, and those variations can be shared among the organizations involved with the Make It-Take It program.
Maggs markets the program throughout the community, resulting in more donated equipment than the program can use in its classes. Equipment that's too old or inappropriate is given to community programs or turned over to a recycling program in exchange for funds that go back into the local Make It-Take It program.
"It's a win-win for everybody because everybody who donates gets tax relief," Maggs said. "And what equipment we can't use, we recycle and get money from that."
She said community members and organizations also donate money to support the program. "Everything in the program, apart from my salary, is donated," she said.
Guines said the program has the added benefit of keeping electronic clutter out of landfills and in use, especially equipment that isn't yet obsolete.
"One of the really strange things about technology is people don't contain their use of the equipment," he said. "They just get newer and newer, and you build up all that old equipment out there. But we're finding that that old equipment has a way of bringing generations of young people who could never afford a new one right now into the use of these things."
Using the equipment to teach kids about technology is putting students who would at one time have been at a technological disadvantage ahead of the game, he said. Typical high school kids know how to use the technology, Guines said, but they don't necessarily have the technological know-how that goes along with building a computer.
The stars continue to align for Flagler's Make It-Take It program, with a publicity boost from the local cable company. Bright House Networks donated funds that will allow the district to move its program from a classroom to a mobile computer lab. A bus, outfitted with computers donated by Apple, and Wi-Fi will allow Maggs to transport her class to students at each school, rather than trying to round up students for classes at her permanent location.
"The bulk of our students come from the schools, and they have to get to my location," she said. Until now that has meant that Maggs must bring in the students by bus.
"I have to go to the bus depot, pick up a bus, drive to the schools, pick up the students, drive the students to where my lab is - our lab - teach them, drive them back, then deliver the bus back," she said. "It takes me all day to teach a class."
Mobilizing the lab will let her teach more than one class a day. She said the school district also hopes to turn the mobile lab into a Microsoft certification center so students can learn career-oriented technology skills.
Even though the school district hasn't completed an assessment
of the program's effect on students, Maggs said that parent surveys found that students who take the course have fewer behavior problems. School principals also support the program because the results are apparent to them.
When they are in the class, student attendance levels are 100 percent at school, she said. They get fewer referrals and into fewer detentions.
Part of that has to do with the commitment required for the class. Students are required to attend every class and avoid suspensions and other disciplinary absences, or they are ineligible to take home a computer.
Maggs said the completion rate for the course is nearly 100 percent. More than 500 students have attended the class and only one failed to graduate. In that situation, the student was removed from the class for stealing.
According to Amiri, the program's graduation rate is close to 94 percent.
"That is a very good number, and it shows that when students are engaged in the learning process and they can relate to the content and the teacher, they can do amazing things," Amiri said.
Amiri said the institute conducted a study to compare academic performance of students who took the course against those who didn't, and found that course attendees fared significantly better in subjects such as writing, reading and math than those who did not take the course. Grade point average was also greater in students who completed the program.
"There is direct correlation between improved academic achievement and the graduation rate," Amiri said, "both in terms of reading and math, and also communication abilities as well as the ability to critically analyze information. The students who went through this program do significantly better than the cohort who did not."
The institute's study has yet to be published, but Amiri said writing score improvements were triple that of the control group, and reading and math score improvements were approximately double for students who graduated from the Make It-Take It program.
"I believe that the children are learning how to learn," he said.
In Brevard County, Fla., Make It-Take It was instituted in public schools in 2005. The program serves as part of an overall effort to bridge the county's digital divide.
Patricia Lewis, teacher technology integrator for Brevard Public Schools, said the Institute for the Study of Digital Inclusion assisted in starting the classes, including the basic curriculum, but the district has made the program its own.
"The institute shares its curriculum with us, and we adapt it to the needs of our kids," she said.
She said the institute also offered to help with fundraising and building program awareness, but she's managed to do much of that on her own.
"I create movies and documentation and present to various groups in our community that are interested in knowing what it's about."
The district also established community resources that donate computers to the program, including the Kennedy Space Center. In addition, many of the computers come from within the district because the district has a computer refurbishment program, she said. Some of the vendors who provide equipment to the school have donated back-up devices and printers.
One thing that's been beneficial is the institute's ability to provide software licenses at minimal cost. She said the district charges students to cover this fee.
"We asked that they pay $10 to do this," she said, "but if they couldn't afford it, it's OK." She believes charging for the computer creates more buy-in for students and increases the sense of ownership when students take the computers home.
Extending Its Reach
Besides schools, the institute works with churches and cities to teach the classes. In many cases,
the institute itself teaches the courses and provides equipment from its own donated sources. Partners can adjust the program to their needs, as long as they follow the program's basic guidelines.
Organizations that want to implement the Make It-Take It program join the Institute for $5,000 per year.
"This will provide all the manuals and the first classes that they will teach," Amiri said. "We will provide the computers for them, and we will train the teachers. We help them in terms of fundraising; we help them in terms of writing grants. So if they want to join the institute, they just let us know and we will go there and sit down with them and share our resources."
Membership also gives partners Microsoft software licenses at a reduced cost. Amiri estimates that the program costs approximately $500 per student, including broadband access for one year. In many places where the program has been implemented, donations cover most, if not all, of this cost.
"For a small amount of money, what we are arguing is that access to information and relevant information from home - for underserved communities for children with a certain socio-economic background - can significantly impact their education and ultimately, hopefully, in the future would allow them to be better participants in the work force and the economy," Amiri said.