Amidst shelves of books at Rondo Community Outreach Library in St. Paul, a group of patrons has its eyes fastened to glowing computer screens. It is a scene set in neutrals, with white tables and beige pillars, but the surroundings are not the focus. The snapping of keys and clicking of mice fills the open space as people work and play in this oasis of technology, absorbed in the pixels on their screens.
Colorful elastics adorn the wrist of 15-year-old Donquala Patterson, who rests her hand next to a keyboard as she clicks calmly across her screen. A resident of the Rondo neighborhood, she doesn’t have a computer at home and uses one at the library once a week “to look for jobs.”
Plenty of young people come in simply to use the public computers, but the library also offers other opportunities just for teens. The Createch Program makes technology available to teens from 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays. Often, the library puts out iPads for teens to use.
“I think that’s the big draw—the iPads,” said Tayo Adefuye, a library customer service assistant at Rondo. But Createch also offers other activities. Once, he said, Minnesota-bred sound artists Beatrix*JAR helped teens take apart circuits to experiment with sound. Another Tuesday, the lab focused on aerial photography.
Once or twice a month, public libraries also offer workshops led by the Teen Tech Crew, a group of nine high schoolers organized through the Science Museum of Minnesota. Peter Kirschmann, the youth crew manager for the Teen Tech Crew, said teens interact with technology in three ways: hanging out, messing around and geeking out.
“As opposed to just using Facebook, maybe they’re playing with some things on the iPad that they haven’t tried before, maybe producing some videos, maybe doing some stop motion animation,” he said.
Such workshops and programs allow teens to access and experiment with technology, but those in computerless homes still face challenges.
For Jennifer Nelson, a partnerships coordinator specializing in digital inclusion at Minnesota’s Department of Education, the classroom should be the “great equalizer,” providing the opportunity to serve children, no matter their background. However, “there are disparities” between schools and neighborhoods, making external resources necessary.
According to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of teachers nationwide think that electronic devices in education are driving a gap between upper and lower income school districts. For those who live in poverty or near it, digital education can take a backseat to more pressing concerns.
“For lower income teens, the older a student gets, the more pressure is on them to find a job and to be engaged in the workforce. They can’t come to a public library and take a class on using a computer because the family priority is getting them a job. That’s a huge barrier,” Nelson said.
With those challenges, education and technological skills are pushed to the periphery—“the family has a primary concern of putting food on the table and making sure there’s a safe place to stay at night,” Nelson said.
While income is one of the factors why some schools can’t receive technology, by no means is it the only one. Cara Hagen is an education technology consultant for TIES, a St. Paul company that trains teachers for effective electronic use.
“Digital equity isn’t just the haves and the have-nots. That’s one piece,” Hagen said.
She cites policy, budget, management and the classroom itself as factors. For instance, the school in question may have procedures in place that would make a major change such as digital implementation extremely difficult. Getting community leaders and school officials to agree on effective and financially feasible practices can also be an impediment.
A necessary tool
“I think we take for granted that when you have a computer, you rely on it a lot,” said Maddie Tate, manager of the St. Paul location of PC’s for People, a non-profit organization that distributes free and cheap computers to local residents who qualify as low-income. “If you don’t have that for school work, for job applications, for everything like that, it definitely makes life a lot harder.”
PC’s for People operates out of a nondescript building on Marshall Avenue. Often, a line of customers forms soon after the store opens at 10 a.m. on weekdays, snaking through the main room.
The computers that are ready for sale go to the day’s first customers. Some computers are available for free, but many patrons choose to pay extremely discounted rates for newer models. A laptop sale also takes place on the 15th of every month, and these days are even more chaotic.
“That is pretty much like Black Friday,” Tate said.
Beyond the main room, the back of the store is packed with stacks of computer parts. A technician sits next to the small mountain of computers waiting to be refurbished.
“It was just recently coming out into the halls, but we managed to get it back,” Tate said, sweeping her eyes across the room. Five or six computers go out on the average day, she said, many of them to families.
Helping young people gain access to computers is one of the goals of PC’s for People. In 2010, the organization began a project called PC’s for Kids. Through this program, PC’s for People strives to make computers available to families with a child in elementary school by coordinating with schools and head start programs.
The business began with a kid who needed a computer, Tate said, recounting the story of a suspended student who was able to keep up with his schoolwork when he was given access to a computer. As the presence of technology continues to increase in schools, a computer is becoming more and more of a necessity, and it is often the minimum a student needs.
Right: Maddie Tate, manager at PC’s for People in St. Paul, said computer access is a multi-faceted process, and isn’t solved simply by giving customers an older model for free. (Photo by Thomas Wred)
More to be done
Though providing computers to disadvantaged people is a significant step in shrinking the digital divide, these machines are limited in their usefulness without a working Internet connection. To help resolve this problem in the Twin Cities, PC’s for People began selling discounted Internet in September of last year. Three thousand customers have signed up since, Tate said.
But organizations like Rondo Library and PC’s for People still have plenty to do in their efforts to increase teenagers’ access to technology. A report by the Pew Research Center found that in the United States, seven percent of teens do not have a computer available to them at home. For some teens, school papers cannot be easily typed, and communication through social media is not always an option.
It’s why Patterson has to go to a library to compete in the competitive job market. Her friends with technology have an easier time in school, and Patterson has noticed the difference.
“Without computers, kids fall behind,” Tate said.