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Demand Deficits and Learning Curves

Our approach to developing network infrastructure and skills emphasizes building and deepening the skills of the community as a whole, as well as the skills of individual users. In Austin, we focus on “training trainers”; we offer people instruction in Internet publishing, for instance, with the proviso that they must then dedicate time to helping teach others. This summer, teenagers who enrolled in a “build your own computer” class were required as part of the curriculum to introduce computers to a friend. This approach emphasizes informal, ongoing, social learning.

Most people who spend time in cyberspace-up to 70 percent of users, according to some surveys-access the Net primarily at work or at school. Their use of the network has a certain purpose. People in low-income communities, however, typically don’t encounter the Internet either at school or at work, and they must discover their own reasons to use this technology, as well as a place to use it. Thus the problem of a “demand deficit” is common in poor communities.

Users in East Austin typically issue vague pronouncements that they are learning the Internet for their kids, “who need to know this stuff.” Another common theme reveals a desire simply not to be left behind. Says Timika Mitchell: “Everywhere you turn, it’s this, or that.” Young people have seen Web addresses in television ads, such as for Nike shoes or Hollywood movies, or have heard their peers discuss chat groups or online games.

Helen Hart-a lifelong resident of East Austin who has lived in the same house for 60 years-is typical in this respect. Hart worked as a crossing guard at a nearby elementary school for 12 years and is active in her neighborhood association. She encountered the Internet for the first time in her neighborhood library at a public-access computer terminal installed and run by the volunteers of Austin Free-Net. Her encounters with the World Wide Web have done nothing to dislodge her initial belief that the Internet, and computers in general, have little value for her life.

But others in East Austin have found computer networking to be an uplifting experience. Etta Kelly, 22, had her first child at age 14 and lives in one of East Austin’s public housing developments. Her ambition is to go to college and get a degree in business. She and her four children participate in the Austin Learning Academy’s Even Start program, which helps her study for her General Education Degree. With the help of some students at the University of Texas, Etta developed a Web page about herself, describing her life, her children, and her hopes, and featuring a photo of her family. At a recent parenting conference hosted by the university, Etta sat at a table with a computer hooked to the Internet, showing other mothers her Web page and answering questions about how to find other information on the Internet, clearly proud of her presence in cyberspace.

As more low-income citizens are introduced to the Internet, they are using the medium for a greater variety of purposes. Austin Free-Net, for example, recently sponsored a “key pal” session of women from public housing in Austin talking to their counterparts in South Africa and sharing experiences. One Austin woman was so excited about this project that she couldn’t sleep the night before; she has now dedicated herself to keeping the communication going.

The learning curve for new users in poor communities has a distinct arc, characterized by three stages that we’ve witnessed countless times:

1. “I Can Do This.”
In the first stage a novice discovers that simply using the technology is not that difficult, and that basic skills like manipulating the mouse and keyboard produce nearly instant results. The Web’s point-and-click interface has made quick competence with the Internet possible, and search engines on the Web make finding online information or interesting sites much easier than what was required two or three years ago. Because of the sheer volume of material on the Web, nearly everyone can find something of interest, be it gardening, sports, cooking, games, chat rooms, or information about government benefits.

2. “Look at This.”
The user quickly finds an item of personal interest that he or she wants to share with someone else. The sharing indicates a pride of accomplishment and a new level of confidence. Perhaps more important, this stage marks the realization that the Net is more than just an information bank but also a communications tool.

3. “There Ought to Be a Way.”
Users also quickly realize that they should be able to find information of personal significance and relevance-or even to produce information that might be interesting to others. During one of our first training sessions two years ago, East Austin was facing a controversial school bond vote. Not far into the training, we were asked if the Web contained information on the issue. It did, and our trainees devised a strategy to look for it.

At this point, the problem often becomes one of how to harness the new users’ enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Free-Net volunteers are so busy just trying to get computers up and running, and then training people in the basics, that they don’t always have time to follow through in ways that the users want. In the case of the school bond, for example, the question arose: “How do we tell people what we think of this school bond?” But the election happened before opponents from the East side of town organized themselves into using the Free-Net to present their views.

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