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December 13, 2007

   

Narrowing Bryn Mawr's Digital Divide

trainee with computer
Housekeeping's Morea Williams displays her computer

There wasn't much pomp and circumstance, but participants were happy with the outcome of the informal graduation exercises taking place in Guild Computing Center this week: each one left with a fully loaded used computer.

The graduates were members of the Bryn Mawr staff who had completed programs offered by Bryn Mawr's Teaching and Learning Initiative (TLI), an effort to integrate students, faculty and staff members as collaborative partners in the College's educational enterprise.

The computers were ones that had been replaced by newer models after four years of use in various administrative offices around campus. Forty-four of them are being distributed this week, most of them as presents to staff members who have acquired computing skills through the TLI over the course of the past year.

Lauren Maksym '08, a major in computer science who minors in education and has been active in the TLI since its inception, organized the distribution of the computers — a real logistical challenge. She undertook the project as part of an independent study under the supervision of Mark Colvson, the coordinator of curriculum and research support in Information Services. 

"I'm doing research on teaching and learning in the workplace as a catalyst for change," Maksym says.

Staff Education Coordinator Darla Attardi co-teaches the TLI's Computing I course with Erica Seaborne '09 and Computing II with Map Curator and Geographic Information System Coordinator Betsy Reese. Offered to staff members who don't use computers in their work, the courses meet once a week during the academic year and twice a week during the summer.

Each staff member is paired with a Bryn Mawr undergraduate who is familiar with the skills covered in the program; the students attend the classes with the staff members and meet with them once a week for an hourlong tutoring session outside of class. Staff members are granted release time for the classes, so they don't lose work hours by participating.

Many of the undergraduates involved are, like Maksym, students in the Bryn Mawr-Haverford Education Program who sharpen their teaching skills and understanding of the learning process through their work with staff members. Others are involved simply because they wanted to build connections with community members they might not otherwise meet.

Housekeeper Beth Iushewitz, an immigrant to the United States from Scotland, took Computing I last year.

"It taught us how to e-mail and how to use the Internet to do things like look up our paycheck online. I'm nearly 64 years old, and it was like learning a new language," Iushewitz says. "I think it's fabulous that the College wants us to be computer literate. Now I can e-mail my family overseas for the first time."

Shana Fountain, a cook in Rhoads Dining Hall, participated in the TLI's Empowering Learners Program, which pairs staff members with students for an exchange of skills. She taught her student cooking and parenting skills and learned how to browse the Internet, with an eye toward helping her teenage son with his college search.

A 17-year veteran of Dining Services, Fountain says she's been waiting for a program like the TLI for a long time.

"It's a much-needed step toward building community in the staff. A lot of people who didn't have the opportunity to go to college are still interested in education," she says. "I'd like to see more programs like this at Bryn Mawr."

Fountain says her son will help her install her computer when she gets it home.

Ibrahim Edwards, who works in Erdman Dining Hall, already had some familiarity with basic computing, so he started in Computing II.

"I had picked up a few skills just by clicking around, through trial and error. I liked the idea of taking a class that would cover computing skills in an organized way, so that I didn't waste time clicking around and figuring things out," Edwards says.

"It was really beneficial," he says. "I can use the Power Point and Excel skills in many ways."

Edwards also formed an especially close bond with his student partner, Haverfordian Rebecca Zeldin '08. The two discovered a common interest in religion. He is Muslim, and she is Jewish. Together they have started a blog to promote interfaith dialog.

"Ibrahim really took the course and ran with it," says Attardi. "He was incredibly enthusiastic about investigating new technologies, and he taught the class — including the teachers — a lot of things we didn't know, like how to embed video in a blog."
trainee with computer
IS staff member Mark Colvson reviews the paperwork with housekeeper Beth Iushewitz

In past years, Information Services has donated the computers to nonprofit organizations suggested by staff members, but copyright law required that each machine be wiped clean of software, including its operating system, before it left the College's possession.

According to Director of Computing Services Janet Scannell, the situation changed a couple of years ago when the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania negotiated a new agreement with Microsoft on behalf of its member institutions.

The new contract allows members of the College's staff to buy certain Microsoft products for their home computers at deeply discounted prices. It enabled the College to pass on the used machines, fully loaded with newly installed Windows operating systems and the Microsoft Office 2007 package, for a fee of $80.

Members of the Staff Association who serve on the TLI's advisory committee suggested that the computers would make excellent graduation presents for program participants, says the Association's Ann Ogle.

Chief Administrative Officer Jerry Berenson agreed, and he arranged for the College to waive the $80 fee for TLI graduates.

The computers come with a promise that the College will dispose of them safely if the staffers who take them home decide to discard them. In return, staff members must sign an ownership-transfer form promising that they will not dispose of them improperly — computers contain materials that become harmful if they end up in landfills.

The new computer-distribution scheme is a two-year pilot project; upon its completion, the College will assess how well it has worked.

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