Broadband stimulus creates computer training centers

The broadband stimulus program wasn't created just to deploy broadband in underserved rural areas – it was also designed to create education centers to help train more people in how to use the Web.

Mass. city becomes testing ground for broadband adoption programs

There has been a particular need for such centers in cities such as Lowell, Mass., where many people have lost their jobs in the manufacturing industry and are now looking to change their careers. Shannon Robichaud, the director of education and training at the non-profit Community Teamwork, Inc. (CTI), says many workers who have had the same jobs for a long time simply had no idea how important computers and the Internet have become to finding a new job."I've had people who have worked on machine their whole lives and they're coming in to learn the basics,” she says. "To even apply for any kind of job nowadays you have to go online."

Lowell became a testing ground for broadband adoption and education programs earlier this year when the University of Massachusetts in Lowell won a $783,000 grant to build 11 public computer centers in and around the city. The grant was awarded as part of the $4 billion in broadband stimulus funding released by the government last year. Six months after receiving the grant, UMass and its partners in the Lowell community had all 11 public centers up and running and ready for classes, which typically occur twice a week and are taught by UMass Lowell students. Class subjects range from basic computer literacy courses to advanced classes in online media development.

Cheryl Amey, the assistant executive director of workforce development at CTI, says businesses in the area are clamoring for more workers who have at least intermediary computer skills and people will need to learn these skills sooner or later if they want to get a job.

"Hospitals are telling us now that even jobs such as nursing assistants have to use the Internet and know how to use computers to access e-mail and electronic records," she says. "Entry-level positions that no one used to think of as technical now require a level of technical knowledge that many job seekers don't have."

Not all of the centers have been set up just to train workers looking for jobs either, as the program has also set up centers in places such as senior centers and the local Boys' and Girls' Club. Each public center typically has between two and four computers in it, although the larger ones that are used for community classes have in the neighborhood of 10 computers. The goal is to reach as many people as possible to teach them about broadband, program organizers say.

Danielle Carkin, the head trainer in Lowell’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, says the program has attracted many seniors who want to learn how to use Skype to make inexpensive video calls to see their grandchildren. Once they master using Skype, she says they become more interested in using applications such as e-mail and online shopping.

Robin Toof, the co-director of the Center for Family, Work and Community at UMass Lowell, says the program is much different for the children learning about broadband at the Boys' and Girls' Club since many of them are already well acquainted with using Web technology. This means that they can take more advanced classes to learn skills such as graphic design and video-making to help give them job skills they can tout before they even graduate high school.

Of course, the relatively limited number of computers available has meant that the program has had a tough time meeting the demand for broadband classes in the city. Toof says there's a waiting line of about 80 people planning to take classes at a senior center in neighboring Lawrence, for instance.

Looking forward, the UMass program is trying to create a public Wi-Fi network in downtown Lowell so that people coming out of computer training courses will be able to access the Web while they're in the city's commercial hub. By then, the program aims to have signed up more than 7,000 new broadband subscribers in the city to take advantage of the network.

"We want this program to really make a difference in peoples' lives," Amey says. "After all, you can't get very far today without strong computer skills."

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