Community IT workshops as a strategy for community learning
First Monday

Community IT workshops as a strategy for community learning by John M. Carroll, Paula M. Bach, Mary Beth Rosson, Cecelia Merkel, Umer Farooq, and Lu Xiao



Abstract
A university–community partnership to develop strategies for sustainable IT learning in local non–profit organizations initiated the Central Pennsylvania Community Information Technology Workshop series in 2003. The original goal was narrow and modest: To plan a set of participatory action research projects in which Penn State faculty and students would work with members of Centre County (Pennsylvania) non–profit community groups to develop IT infrastructures and applications. Through four years the workshops grew into a broader strategy for facilitating a continuous and self–initiated learning process in the community.

Contents

Introduction
Workshop 1
Workshop 2
Workshop 3
Workshop 4
Discussion and conclusions

 


 

Introduction

Information technology (IT) has transformed jobs, schools, and leisure activities. But it does not transform every life and every facet of life equally. Precipitous “digital divides” separate the haves and the have–nots of the information society (Dewan and Riggins, 2005). A subtle digital divide exists for non–profit community service groups. These groups address important societal issues such as environmental protection and sustainable development, historical preservation, the arts, provision of medical services and distribution of food to the needy, housing construction for low–income people, protection of animals, aspects of public safety and security, and much more. However, as organizations, these groups often fall behind the rapidly moving information technology frontier (Kirschenbaum and Kunamneni, 2001). They often are trapped by somewhat outdated technologies and information management practices.

Why? Non–profits invest minimally in IT equipment, software, and training (Merkel, et al., 2005, 2007). The individual members of community groups are usually not themselves impoverished, under–educated, or socially isolated. Indeed to the contrary, many are volunteering spare time and effort to serve their neighbors and communities. However, community non–profits — as organizations — invest little in infrastructure or planning. Indeed, the proportion of resources directly invested in delivering services is a critical parameter for non–profit success. This in turn leads to many problems relative to the functionality of non–profits as organizations. It specifically undermines their investment in and attention to information technology, since IT is the newest arena of critical infrastructure, and the costs of ignoring it are not well understood.

This entrains a somewhat invisible but nonetheless significant societal challenge. In the United States, for example, much of the social welfare apparatus is implemented through community groups — food banks, housing programs like Habitat for Humanity, water quality monitoring projects, community museums, orchestras, and other arts groups, as well as public school “enrichment” programs. In the United States, almost six percent of all organizations are in the non–profit sector comprising over 1.6 million organizations and 9.3 percent of all paid employees (Salamon, et al., 2003). The Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector project estimates that in the late 1990s, in the 35 countries worldwide participating in their study, this sector had aggregate expenditures of US$1.3 trillion dollars and employed 39.5 million full–time equivalent workers when factoring in religious congregations.

In the state of Pennsylvania, the site of our current research, there are 700,000 non–profit organizations, compared to only 12,500 in 1940. Non–profit organizations, which are largely community–based and rely heavily on volunteer labor, now account for about 10 percent of total employment in the state (Grobman, 2002).

In 2003, we initiated a U.S. National Science Foundation project we called Civic Nexus. The project sought to identify and investigate strategies to facilitate self–directed informal learning about information technology within community–based organizations. We wanted to better understand the obstacles to greater autonomy with respect to information technology in the civic sector, and to explore and assess approaches to enhancing the IT autonomy of civic organizations. During the ensuing four years, we have carried out more than a dozen community IT partnership projects to develop novel IT infrastructures and applications., which we have approached as participatory action research case studies (reported in detail elsewhere, e.g., Farooq, et al., 2007; Merkel, et al., 2005, 2007; Xiao and Carroll, 2007).

As a first step in the Civic Nexus project, we organized a small community information technology project, inviting members of groups we thought might be willing to collaborate with us. During the summer of 2003, we had contacted (by e–mail) several groups, telling them that we would be organizing a community technology project in the autumn. That fall, we organized the first of what has become a series of four community technology workshops. Over the four years, the workshops have developed, not necessarily in a surprising way, but in a useful way. Looking back, the workshops have become much more than a recruiting mechanism; they have contributed significantly to the forward momentum of the Civic Nexus project.

In Table 1, we preview the flow of development in the workshop series.

 

Table 1: Overview of community IT workshops.
WorkshopPrimary goals and agendaWhat was shared and learned?
First Workshop, October 2003 Penn State researchers share prior (Blacksburg) work with potential community partners; identify future partners and projects.Common ground regarding IT and application possibilities that the researchers could help with, and about IT goals and challenges for the community groups.
Second Workshop, October 2004Year 1 community partners share their past year’s work with a small group of potential future partners; discussion of future projects.Learning and innovation by community partners; reflections and articulation of further goals for Year 2 partnerships.
Third Workshop, August 2005Community partners share their past year’s work with a large group of other community members; broad discussion of community IT needs and goals; identify potential partners for Year 3.Event is named (CITW) and publicized; majority of steering committee is community members; program more broadly directed at community needs and interests; funding by community foundation.
Fourth Workshop, August 2006Community members — including some who were not partners in prior years — share their needs, practices, and plans with a large group of other community members; broad discussion of community needs and goals.Event is primarily organized & run by community members; held at the public library; theme is “IT Planning”; community discusses technology survey results; bimonthly community roundtable formed.

 

 

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Workshop 1

We started the Civic Nexus project in September 2003. We contacted 12 groups that had expressed an interest in working with us as researchers. We interviewed a representative from each of the organizations to explore project ideas. The responses were varied although most of the interests were related to the groups’ community Web sites. Some groups had a specific community technology project where they felt collaboration with us would fit in, such as redesigning their organization’s Web site, while others could not even provide a list of possible technology projects that we could work together on. For example, one group was delighted to work with us as outside technology experts but did not have a clear picture of how and where we could provide help, and was asking us to suggest ideas. After this first round of interviews, we held our first workshop of Civic Nexus project in early October 2003.

In the nascent stages of the Civic Nexus project, we shared our experience with the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV). In the BEV project, the Blacksburg community already had a vision of how they might use technology, and our role was that of designers who built new technology for the community. Our interactions with the Centre County community groups were different. The groups in general were not committed to a technology project that we could work on. Thus the first workshop was an initiative to bring together community non–profit groups and the Civic Nexus research team to initiate a dialog between the organizations and the researchers. The goals of this workshop were to learn about our potential partners’ IT–related interests and concerns, and to share with them our own experiences with community technology projects. We hoped to use our prior work as a way to illustrate possibilities and to gather reactions from the groups.

Our workshop agenda included introductions, an overview of the new Civic Nexus project, demonstrations of four technologies developed in our work with the BEV, and discussion with community groups. Our plan was to demonstrate technology possibilities, and let the groups pick the one(s) of most interest for collaboration. To facilitate the creation of common ground, we wanted to provide technology demonstrations that would be meaningful to the community groups. Through our preliminary interviews we had learned about the groups’ missions, practices, events, and current challenges, and we used this information to contextualize the demonstrations. For example, one of our potential partners was the Centre County Historical Society. When demonstrating Bridgetools, an environment that integrates asynchronous and synchronous collaboration (Ganoe, et al., 2003), we stepped through a scenario of two Historical Society volunteers organizing activities for their annual iron exhibit (Figure 1), including an image borrowed from the Society’s image library.

 

Figure 1: Screen shot of the collaborative workspace demoed in the first workshop

Figure 1: Screen shot of the collaborative workspace demoed in the first workshop. The image on the right is from the Centre County Historical Society.

 

Eleven people attended the first workshop: seven were members of potential partner groups and four were Civic Nexus researchers. The workshop was successful, in that we were able to meet, interact, and establish partnerships with four community groups. These groups were diverse, representing a range of people and local issues. Moreover, our collaboration with these groups led to novel research results and laid a foundation for the growth of the project in the subsequent two years. These community partners were:

  • The Spring Creek Watershed Community: We worked with a team of technology volunteers on redesigning the community Web site;
  • Centre County Historical Society: We worked on defining and developing projects that led to the development of online tools;
  • Learning Enrichment and Student Services, State College Area School: With a teacher we helped a group of high school students develop an online course to be used in the high school curriculum; and,
  • CentreConnect (an organization that develops and maintains community resource Web pages in Centre County) and the local public library: We organized a web design training session in conjunction with these two groups.

 

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Workshop 2

In mid–October of 2004, we held another workshop similar in scope to the first one, to help us identify non–profit groups with which to work during the second year of Civic Nexus. An explicit goal — different than that of the first workshop — was to feature our partners from Year 1, both to demonstrate their projects and to reflect on their experiences collaborating with us. Although our research team planned this workshop, the detailed schedule for the workshop (time and day) was negotiated closely with our Year 1 partners because their participation was essential: we believed that the presence of these earlier partners would create an opportunity for social networking, both among themselves and with potential Year 2 partners. We also expected that their specific technology projects (e.g., creating an effective Web site for their organization) and organizational practices (e.g., how to manage technology volunteers) would be useful and meaningful material for the potential Year 2 partners.

The selection criteria for choosing partners in the second year also differed from those in the first year. In the first year we had been relatively opportunistic, partnering with groups who met the broad requirement of having a Web presence and expressing interest in working collaboratively on a technology project with our research team. In contrast, for the second year we made an effort to identify partners who contrasted in interesting ways to our partners from the first year, using the following criteria:

  • An interest in doing a technology project where groups would learn and participate actively in the process;
  • Groups who are not connected to Penn State directly (e.g., through Penn State Outreach);
  • Groups who might want to investigate technologies that we were developing in our lab (e.g., map–based collaboration);
  • Groups who are not part of a national organization that already techno–structure in place for IT learning, planning, and use (e.g., local chapters of Red Cross); and,
  • Groups involved in emergency response/crisis management, rural groups, seniors groups, church groups, social justice–oriented groups, or animal rescue.

We identified and contacted 26 groups in Centre County that fit our criteria. Of the groups we contacted, we determined that nine were interested in working with us and invited them to the workshop. Seven people accepted our invitation and attended the workshop, each representing a different nonprofit group. Four people representing Year 1 partners also attended, two from Spring Creek Watershed Community, and one each from Centre Connect and Learning Enrichment and Student Services. Six Civic Nexus team members attended this workshop.

We organized the workshop so that Year 1 partners could showcase their technologies and facilitate a corresponding discussion among the workshop participants. Our agenda began with an overview of the Civic Nexus project, the activities of the first year (as told by our partners), brief introduction of emerging technologies from our lab, discussion time among workshop participants about their technology practices (e.g., role of technology, challenges and opportunities, wish lists, projects currently being worked on), and sharing of the ideas raised in the discussion.

The workshop was successful in creating a shared forum among Year 1 partners and the potential Year 2 nonprofit groups. E–mail addresses were exchanged among the workshop participants. Best practices for common problems were shared and elaborated (e.g., how to choose a Web site host). Most importantly, potential Year 2 partners were able to see concrete results from our collaboration with Year 1 community organizations. This led to increased interest by our future partners; we even had to decline working with some groups because our research team could collaborate with a maximum of four partners. The four groups we identified for collaboration in Year 2 were:

  • Leadership Centre County: We worked on a project that facilitated the improvement of their database and their Web site;
  • Seven Mountains Emergency Management Services: We helped to design an online equipment checkout form for emergency training courses spread in different counties;
  • State College Food Bank: We helped them to reconstruct their Web site and better manage their database; and,
  • Tri–County Habitat for Humanity: We worked on redesigning and improving their Web site.

The first two workshops can be seen as similar to the “future workshops” described by McPhail and colleagues (1998). As a participatory design strategy to bridge the gap between end users and designers, future workshops provide a platform to envision the design of organizational information systems. Our future workshops demonstrated to community group volunteers the value of their collective participation in developing IT capacity in their organizations. In our first two workshops, we invited several organizations to participate in a collective fashion to articulate how they could work collaborative with us in order to expand their information technology capacity. McPhail, et al.’s future workshops were limited to a single organization, while our workshop series grew from a small number of organizations to many organizations at a community–wide scale. Our hope was that we could create a sustainable developmental model so that community members could interact with each other and collectively address common technology problems, without the integral role of a research group.

 

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Workshop 3

In second workshop, it was clear that non–profits had a lot to share about their own technology experiences and that a mutual exchange was valuable to the organizations. We began to think about the workshops as a potential forum sharing on a community–wide scale. We explored this idea by talking with our Civic Nexus partners. The groups expressed an interest in a broader forum and some agreed to serve on a steering committee to plan a non–profit technology workshop for all Centre County area non–profit organizations. The group began meeting in Spring 2005. The members of this steering committee included a representative from CentreConnect, three members of well–established community organizations (Habitat for Humanity, the Food Bank, and a local animal rescue group), an IT staff member from the public library, and members of our research team. The orienting goal for this broader community technology workshop was to reach and involve a larger number of groups than we could partner with directly in the Civic Nexus projects, and to facilitate a broader community–based process for technology learning and utilization.

The formation of a steering committee was a turning point with respect to the Civic Nexus goal of facilitating a self–sustaining process of IT learning in the community. The group met regularly to discuss how an IT workshop could best serve the community, and by so doing they implicitly adopted an “oversight” role for the community’s IT learning needs. Thus in addition to planning a late summer workshop, the committee’s discussions often addressed more general concerns about how to help community organizations develop sustainable IT infrastructures and practices. The committee chose a name for the workshop — Community Information Technology Workshop — that reinforced its broad outreach agenda. The committee also obtained a grant from a community foundation that not only helped to defray workshop expenses but also demonstrated buy–in from key community stakeholders (i.e., versus relying solely on our research grant funds).

A primary focus from the start was to ensure that the workshop would meet the needs of the local non–profits. Thus initial meetings included brainstorming about how to leverage the committee’s contacts throughout the community to attract interest in the workshop. The group developed a list of umbrella organizations that had contact with a range of different non–profits (e.g., United Way sponsors a meeting attended by a various social service agencies). We used this list to inform community organizations about our plans and to distribute a brief survey asking for input (what IT projects were currently in progress, suggestions for topics, how the workshop could benefit their community organizations, what if any IT accomplishments they could share, and an invitation to sign up for updates).

The workshop program highlighted experience reports of non–profit organizations were actively working with information technology. In the morning, four community groups presented a Lessons Learned session in which they described specific technology challenges they faced and the strategies they used to address them. The issues that were described were deliberately chosen as likely to be faced by many of the conference attendees (e.g., maintaining a Web site, streamlining organizational tasks, creating an online donation system, and adding content to a Web site). The lunchtime session was devoted to professional networking, and included a technology fair designed to make organizations aware of the technology resources available in the community (e.g., training opportunities, availability of university interns to do technology work for organizations, etc.). In the afternoon, attendees chose among three sets of concurrent sessions — Creating E–mail Lists or Online Fundraising; Online Newsletters or Resource Management; and Creating Web sites or Community Partnerships. The workshop sessions were a mix of general and special interest topics, because we expected some community organizations to be advanced in their IT efforts and others to be just beginning. The workshop closed with an open discussion of “Where to go from here?” This session explored how to make Centre County a leader in providing technology support to community organizations over the next five years, and how best to leverage the energy and ideas from the workshop.

The workshop was well attended and replete with lively discussion; we hosted a total of 92 attendees (17 were workshop organizers, presenters, and researchers). 54 attendees completed an evaluation form included in the workshop package, and from them we learned that the majority of attendees were staff members of community organizations (68 percent). Most respondents (78 percent) reported that they would like to have participated in more sessions related to practical skills. Others indicated that they would like more sessions on networking with other volunteer organizations (35 percent), programmatic technology use (27 percent), and management strategies (26 percent). Most (76 percent) respondents thought the technical level of the content was about right, although a few (17 percent) thought the level was too low. A majority (61 percent) thought the workshop was better than expected.

More generally, attendees offered both specific and general comments about workshop content for next year. The most common suggestions related to Web sites (creating, managing, naming); a few attendees mentioned networks and databases. With respect to session style, a few people reiterated the request for practical skills sessions; there was also some mention of beginner and advanced sessions. Finally, several attendees proposed an increase in networking and collaboration, either via an online setting independent of the workshop (“A continuing forum/listserv where we could raise questions, share experiences, give suggestions would be great”) or through shared activities at the meeting (“Mixer at the end to network”; “Small work groups”).

In the closing plenary session of the workshop, there was an explicit request to create an online discussion forum to enable non–profits to discuss technology issues and share expertise. The vision was that a member of a non–profit could post a question (e.g., “We are having trouble printing from the network”) and other non–profits would respond based on their experiences. This request was unanimously endorsed by all of the attendees. Unfortunately, the response to this request was slow in coming. Eventually a Yahoo! group was established, but it only attracted a small number of administrative posts.

The workshop built on the social capital and informal learning accomplished through the first two workshops and two years of collaborative IT projects, to organize and initiate a more broad–based sustainable process of community learning. Community IT leaders — who had emerged over the first two years — joined research team members to form a steering committee, organize funding and other community input, and create a successful learning and networking event. The mood following the workshop was one of accomplishment and optimism.

 

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Workshop 4

The planning for the 2006 workshop began two months after the successful 2005 workshop. The steering committee continued to have monthly meetings, where members focused first on issues emerging from Workshop 3, for example the request for more diverse sessions meeting the needs of both introductory and advanced IT application contexts. There was a desire to maintain the momentum that had resulted from Workshop 3, and the committee considered several options for doing this — create an online community forum, offer other IT–related activities (e.g., training sessions) during the year, and continue to seek community input for Workshop 4.

The committee also wanted to take a more systematic approach to understanding and meeting the IT needs of local community organizations. The Civic Nexus researchers offered to design a community technology survey that could profile current community IT practices and identify areas of concern, and the steering committee agreed to help with survey construction and administration. Through the winter and spring of 2006, the researchers and steering committee worked to develop and refine the survey. The final survey was comprehensive, organized into 12 sections. Four sections asked about organizational structure and practices (general information, planning, training related to IT, general volunteer training). Seven sections probed practices in operational areas often supported by IT (information management, accounting, communication, hardware, networking, internet, Web sites). A summary section asked about major challenges and future plans. The final survey can be found at http://cscl.ist.psu.edu/nexus/surveyMay20.pdf.

In late spring, we advertised the survey — both paper and online versions — to 594 community organizations in the region. At the same time we advertised the workshop planned for late summer, offering as an incentive one free workshop registration for every organization that completed the survey. The e–mail emphasized that responses would help the committee to better plan for the workshop. We received responses from 55 organizations (just over a nine percent return rate), and these results were discussed over the summer, as workshop planning intensified. See http://cscl.ist.psu.edu/public/projects/nexus/Survey/results.html for a results summary.

Early in the workshop organization process, a concern for strategic planning emerged. This resulted partially from the successful experiences of two Year 2 Civic Nexus projects that involved a “technology assessment” process (Merkel, et al., 2006), partially from the committee members’ many years of experience in working with local organizations on community IT issues, and partially from early survey results that indicated only about half of the responding organizations have a technology plan. Thus the workshop theme became “Planning for Technology,” and sessions on IT planning (lessons learned, development and training of volunteers, communication strategy) were developed as a backbone to the workshop program. A highlight of the first morning session was a summary of the survey results, so that the community organizations could collectively consider and react to their broader shared IT context.

With respect to more specific technology goals, the survey revealed that many technology problems were related to Web site development and maintenance. Several of the steering committee members had been exploring how the community might be supported by a shared content management system (CMS), and they decided to share these ideas in a session on CMS as a paradigm for Web site maintenance; sessions on the future of Web computing in the community were scheduled for more open–ended discussion about how nonprofits might cooperate (with assistance from the community foundation) to develop and share a range of Web services. Finally, an “emerging technologies” session was planned to showcase a diverse set of new hardware and software options that non–profits might find useful in their own contexts.

Considering the Civic Nexus goal of initiating a sustainable technology learning process, an important feature of Workshop 4 was the increased leadership by community volunteers. The Civic Nexus research team had initiated the planning for all three of the earlier workshops; they were held in university facilities, and a researcher managed logistics (food, reserving rooms, printing, program, publicity). In contrast, Workshop 4 was coordinated by community volunteers and was held in community facilities. Civic Nexus researchers continued to attend the planning meetings, but in an increasingly advisory role. In many respects this can be seen as analogous to the participatory development framework we established for our Civic Nexus partnerships, where researchers work closely with individual groups on technology planning or implementation initiatives, but with less and less input as each group takes control of its own project.

Workshop 4 was well attended with a total of 88 participants (18 were workshop organizers, presenters, and researchers). The post–conference evaluation (completed by 32 attendees; note that most of these had not attended Workshop 3) revealed a distribution of attendee categories similar to the previous year, with about 2/3 of the respondents (68 percent) reporting that they were NPO staff members. One interesting difference was that attendance of NPO board members seemed to decrease relative to Workshop 3 (nine percent in the second workshop versus 26 percent in the first). This may reflect a community mobilization process in which new initiatives are sponsored and shepherded by individuals in leadership positions (the steering committee, non–profit board members), but their involvement decreases once the initiative reaches a more stable state.

Most (76 percent) of the evaluation respondents reported that the technical content of the workshop was at the right level. A few (19 percent) thought the workshop was not technical enough and even fewer (five percent) thought the technical level was too high. This pattern echoed the results for Workshop 3, as did the relatively large percent of respondents (41 percent) of the attendees who requested more how–to sessions. All respondents reported that the workshop met (43 percent) or exceeded (57 percent) their expectations.

Several of the open–ended comments provided in the evaluations underscored the impact of the technology strategic planning theme, for instance individuals who now intend to initiate and implement a technology plan for their own organization (“I have been thinking about my organization’s needs and can take things I heard about and start researching on my own.” “Where to look for help, but first I need to decide what I need, and write description, emphasis on deciding what we need/want.”).

As for Workshop 3, the fourth workshop also led to requests for longer and more hands–on sessions, as well as more opportunities for networking and connecting with volunteers from other organizations. With respect to this latter theme, we noted that Workshop 4 attendees’ input related to increased cooperation was somewhat more concrete and specific than those offered at Workshop 3, perhaps due to the brainstorming sessions scheduled along with the other breakout topics. Examples of these more specific comments included:

Other NPOs struggle with similar challenges; closer cooperation would be helpful for all; proper use of technology will make our work more efficient and effective!

Cooperation and networking with other non–profits is fun and helpful and cost–saving and inspiring. I feel less isolated in Web site creation/management — excited about content management project!

Continue info on what other agencies have done, include me w/small agency using intern or hourly/project help, or who has ongoing volunteer help in maintaining office mgmt; info on local classes that useful in learning/ maintaining office computer skills — maybe sharing within agencies.

These comments affirm that the workshop series is meeting one of our research goals, namely helping to highlight possibilities for shared efforts among the local non–profit organizations, both with respect to specific projects like a shared content management system, and more generally in reducing feelings of isolation and providing a forum for finding out what other organizations are doing and resources they have discovered.

During the planning of Workshop 4, a few potential speakers were invited to an organizational meeting. One of these individuals had recently attended a technology roundtable involving a consortium of non–profit organizations across the state. At this roundtable, the groups had discussed technology issues, shared resources, and how technology innovations are shaping their work. He suggested that a local version of such a roundtable could be organized for area non–profits (the meeting he attended was limited to members of the consortium). This proposal impressed the steering committee as a face–to–face alternative to the online discussion idea that had emerged from the Workshop 3, but had led to an unsuccessful Yahoo! group. Thus the roundtable concept was introduced at the end of Workshop 4 as an action item that might help community groups move forward with their technology agendas.

A month after Workshop 4, a planning meeting was held to determine the format and timing for the roundtable. This meeting was attended by those expressing interest in a planning meeting of some sort initially at Workshop 4. A month later, the first non–profit community technology forum was held. A general e–mail was sent to all Workshop 4 attendees who expressed an interest in receiving information about this initiative and about 15 people attended this meeting. The meeting began with a technology discussion about issues that group members were facing such as: the use of Google to host the mail for a non–profit, group communication options (e.g., Google Groups or Yahoo! Groups), buying a color printer, bettering an organization’s positioning in Internet search results, Web design issues across browsers and platforms, and how to address technology issues without an IT person on staff. There was a presentation by a representative from an organization that has been trying to facilitate technology training in Centre County. There were also items related to Workshop 4 (e.g., updates on the CMS initiatives, feedback from the workshop). Finally, volunteers were recruited to help in planning the next community IT workshop.

 

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Discussion and conclusions

We — the Penn State researchers — originally initiated the workshop series to meet potential community group partners, and to show them examples of our prior community technology work. We were newly relocated to Central Pennsylvania, and just starting a three–year NSF project on community learning and technology. It worked well. The next year, as we organized for the second year of our project, it seemed obvious to have another workshop, but also obvious that a slightly different format was more appropriate, a format that included reports from our first–year partners about what we had attempted and achieved. This also worked well. But even by this point, the workshop had changed profoundly. It was significantly less a forum for researchers talking to community partners, and more a forum for community members talking to one another.

The next year, it seemed obvious that the format needed to be broadened still further. We had two year’s of projects and partners, and these engagements had helped to catalyze a broader awareness of and interest in learning and using information technology among civic groups. During the planning for the third workshop, we realized just how much things were changing: The workshop was clearly no longer our event, but rather was becoming the community’s event. The most recent workshop is even more explicitly a community–run event. We played a more constrained role by design, and we found that our community partners were indeed ready to take charge.

The greatest challenge for any socio–technical intervention is sustainability. It would hardly be shocking to find that an energetic team of smart graduate students from Penn State could help a few community groups to use effective strategies and technologies. Rather, this would just raise the question of whether anything fundamental had changed, and concerns about what would happen when the energetic students were gone. We were well aware of this challenge from the outset of the Civic Nexus project. In each of our partnerships we focused on the objective of helping to change organizational concepts and processes through joint projects, rather than merely helping our partners to cope with the specific technology challenges of a given moment. This is an organizational learning objective, complicated by the fact that the organizations are poorly financed, small, mostly comprised of part–time volunteers, and intrinsically focused on issues that have little or nothing to do with information technology (Merkel, et al., 2005; 2007).

The workshops have emerged as perhaps the most sustainable outcome of the Civic Nexus project. Through the four years of the Civic Nexus project, the workshop series evolved toward a broader scope of agenda setting and self–assessment. The central purpose of the workshops evolved from facilitating problem–specific university–community partnerships to facilitating awareness, education, and planning by the community for the community. A key reason we think that the workshops might be a sustainable mechanism for organizational learning is critical mass: We had a number of specific successes in our partnerships with various community groups, but the sustainability of these results depends in every instance on a handful of individuals within each group, in some cases one or two persons. The workshop, because it belongs to the community more broadly, may be more robust.

For example, several individuals in the community have played essential roles in the workshop series. However, through the four years, different people played these roles at different points in time. In September 2007, Workshop 5 was organized; several new people stepped forward to join the steering committee. Vitality in membership is critical to the sustainability of any community–based group, but it might be easier for the workshop series to achieve, because the workshops integrate the interests of many groups, and thus may be able to draw on a larger base of stakeholders. Indeed, the vitality and diversity of the steering committee is prima facie evidence that the workshop series has already become institutionalized in this community.

Another aspect of the workshops that we find remarkable is how quickly they developed from relatively narrow and intimate meetings into a community–wide forum. We have no way of knowing whether or how to generalize our experience in Central Pennsylvania, but we conjecture that this experience provides a “mode” that could be replicated and evaluated in other community contexts: Namely, an annual progression from limited and instrumental partnerships, to broader discussions of results and plans, and finally to a community–wide forum for awareness, education, and planning. Some of the likely keys to success of this model include: identifying and reporting on grassroots initiatives that could plausibly be emulated by other groups; involving community leaders from a variety of non–profit sectors and age cohorts as workshop leaders; siting workshop events at community centers, public libraries, or other shared space; and, clearly signally that ownership of the workshops is open to all who want to contribute. We hope to continue tracking the progress of the Central Pennsylvania Community IT Workshop.

Sustainability is dynamic. Sustainability is not a challenge that is addressed once and for all. It is a continuing challenge for community information systems. The workshop series is now “owned” by the community; it is institutionalized as a community–based initiative that is itself subject to shifts in membership and leadership that could threaten its overall sustainability. We are intrigued by and optimistic about the possibility that the community information technology workshop series can make an integrating contribution to sustainable strategies for continuous learning and effective management of information technology. End of article

 

About the authors

John M. Carroll is the Edward M. Frymoyer Professor of Information Sciences and Technology in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University.
E–mail: jcarroll [at] ist [dot] psu [dot] edu

Paula M. Bach is a PhD candidate in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University.
E–mail: pbach [at] ist [dot] psu [dot] edu

Mary Beth Rosson is Professor of Information Sciences and Technology in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University.
E–mail: mrosson [at] ist [dot] psu [dot] edu

Cecelia Merkel is a Metadata Specialist/Digital Archivist at Pennsylvania State University.
E–mail: cbm12 [at] psu [dot] edu

Umer Farooq is a graduate student in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University.
.
E–mail: ufarooq [at] ist [dot] psu [dot] edu

Lu Xiao is a graduate student in the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University.
E–mail: lxx112 [at] psu [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the support of our community partners in Centre County. This research was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (0342547).

 

References

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Editorial history

Paper received 27 November 2007; accepted 10 March 2008.


Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, John M. Carroll, Paula M. Bach, Mary Beth Rosson, Cecelia Merkel, Umer Farooq, and Lu Xiao.

Community IT workshops as a strategy for community learning
by John M. Carroll, Paula M. Bach, Mary Beth Rosson, Cecelia Merkel, Umer Farooq, and Lu Xiao
First Monday, Volume 13, Number 4 - 7 April 2008
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2052/1955





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