Despite numerous hurdles, projects like E-rate and Net Day have done an admirable job of getting U.S. classrooms wired for the Internet. The latest estimates from Market Data Retrieval, a technology research firm, found that 85 percent of schools now have Internet access. The ratio of students to computer has gone from 12 to 1 in 1993 to a respectable 6.3 to 1 in 1998.
Educators know that it takes more than Internet access to make technology useful in the classroom. That's where Tech Corps comes in. Tech Corps is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving K-12 education at the grassroots level. The organization enlists private and public-sector IT professionals from around the country to help build an effective technology infrastructure in U.S. schools.
The idea for Tech Corps was born in 1993 when Gary Beach, currently senior vice president of International Data Group, was visiting a large PC manufacturer in California.
"In the lobby of the building were scores of computers with the word 'trash' written on a piece of paper above them," Beach said. "I inquired if I might take some with me when I left later in the afternoon. The reply was 'No, they're going to a landfill.' At that moment I became intrigued with the idea of challenging our industry to do more for others that were not digitally connected."
Beach felt there had to be a way that IT professionals, with their vast skills and expertise, could be matched with schools that needed assistance with technology.
"Gary saw IT professionals as a real untapped resource," said Karen Smith, executive director of Tech Corps. "Once he put the idea out there, he received an incredible response. IT folks wanted to help but, until then, hadn't known how."
Working together, Beach and several volunteers launched Tech Corps in 1995. In one week, they received more than 1,000 e-mail messages from people interested in volunteering. Beach soon set up a pilot program in Massachusetts to test his theory of how Tech Corps might work. Success was seen so rapidly that, instead of giving the pilot a year, Tech Corps was rolled out nationally after seven months.
Today, Tech Corps volunteers from all over the country work with schools to build technology plans that meet the needs of their communities. Volunteers conduct teacher-training seminars, mentor students and staff, repair and install computers, participate on technology-planning teams, work side by side with teachers in the classroom, assist teachers with the integration of technology into the curriculum and help with education technology events like Net Day.
"Tech Corps volunteers are making an incredible effort to make our schools more technologically savvy," Smith said. "Bringing IT professionals to schools has already proven rewarding for all parties involved."
For the Common Good
The national Tech Corps organization is run by a staff of three and supported entirely by individual, foundation and corporate contributions. Volunteer efforts are coordinated through state Tech Corps chapters. Currently, 42 states and Washington, D.C., have established chapters.
"Tech Corps is organized through state chapters because states each have their own education infrastructure, economic climate and level of commitment to education technology," Smith said. "If we can get each community to focus on their individual issues of educational technology at the local and state level, we can get them speaking about a common agenda and working for the common good."
Tech Corps launches new chapters by rallying education, business, nonprofit and public-sector leaders at the state and local levels. "We bring them together onto a task force that leads the Tech Corps effort in that state," said Smith. "The chapters are very much driven by the needs of the local community, but they utilize the model set forth by the national Tech Corps organization."
Once a chapter is organized, volunteers are recruited. Schools then contact Tech Corps to request help with various technology projects. Volunteers remain informed of Tech Corps projects via e-mail and can pick which projects they want to join.
"Tech Corps is a nice outlet for helping schools, and it allows me to tinker with technology, too," said Mark Root, chairman of the Washington, D.C., chapter.
Until last year, the majority of requests Root's chapter received from schools were for Internet wiring. In all, his chapter was responsible for wiring more than 75 of the 200 public and private schools in Washington, D.C. Now that many of the area's schools are wired, Root's chapter is receiving more requests for computer repairs and teacher training.
According to Smith, that trend is occurring in other chapters as well. "E-rate is helping schools with wiring, but it doesn't help teachers learn how to use computers. Having a volunteer base of people who can fill in the cracks left by E-rate is a winning combination. Today, staff development activities and mentoring represent our biggest demand from schools."
Edison Freire is a teacher in a Philadelphia inner-city high school. Early on, Freire discovered that technology helped motivate his kids to learn.
He realized that it could be a key to helping kids learn how to transform their
"I heard about Tech Corps and realized that what they were doing fit in with what I wanted to do in my inner-city school -- allow kids to take the lead in empowering low-income inner-city communities through the use of technology."
Because there were no IT professionals living near his school district, Freire used Tech Corps to locate volunteers who could help him train a cadre of kids in technology. "I wanted to give students the opportunity to improve their technology skills and allow them to share their experiences by doing service work for their community."
Freire's students design Web sites for community-based agencies and help people in their community learn to use computers. "If someone in the community buys a computer but doesn't know how to use it, the kids help train them," he said.
Freire also utilizes Tech Corps to allow his students to explore areas of technology they want to know more about. "If they want to learn more about Java scripting, for example, I can contact Tech Corps volunteers and ask them to put together a three-day seminar." While Freire said volunteers and students often have misconceptions and stereotypes in mind about each other when they meet, both groups tend to change their attitudes by the time they part. "Technology seems to be a neutral way of sharing cross-cultural experiences," he said. "Therefore, Tech Corps is making a difference in our school on many levels."
But schools like Freire's that receive help from Tech Corps are not the only ones benefiting from the program. For Tech Corps volunteers, there are also rewards.
"I will never forget the first meeting of pilot volunteers," Beach said. "There were literally tears in their eyes -- they were so happy to be able to give back."
Additional information about Tech Corps is available by calling 781/687-1100.
Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is editor in chief of California Computer News, a Government Technology sister publication.
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