Donate computer gear, expertise to schools

There is a growing gap in U.S. computer literacy. The gap is
roughly parallel to lines dividing our socioeconomic groups—our rich and poor. Homes
with parents making lots of money often have two or three computers, including a fast one
purchased within the year.


But lots of homes have no computers, and kids are getting their only exposure to
computers—if they get any exposure at all—in public schools.


Schools have a wide range of equipment, often depending on how wealthy the school
district is. Many well-off areas have new and highly capable computer labs in their school
districts.


Poor areas—again, if they have computers at all—have outdated equipment and
software. In too many urban districts, money seems to be siphoned off to anything but what
children need for the next century.


GCN readers in government and, to a smaller extent, industry readers represent an
absolutely critical yet mostly untapped resource to help children learn computer skills.
In every community, public and private schools are struggling to find computer-literate
teachers and administrators who can keep aging Macintoshes or odds-and-ends PCs working so
students can learn computing and Internet skills.


In a perfect world, each group of school computers would have a systems administrator
with knowledge and imagination. But salaries in typical school systems are generally less
than those of companies in the same region. Moreover, unemployment levels among skilled
information technology workers has dropped to just about zero. So recruiting and keeping
IT workers in schools is tough.


Schools are searching for equipment and software, but labor and human intelligence are
the most important ingredients to go with the books and the disks. The problem in some
cases is not even the lack of equipment, but rather the lack of skilled personnel to hook
it together, make it work and help students take advantage of it.


I believe each one of us can make a huge difference to hundreds of children, not just
our own, by organizing ourselves to support schools in our area that desperately need our
help. The computer industry is beginning to have a reputation for selfishness and for not
giving back. Apparently, people have been too busy working and making money to give back.
But that doesn’t have to extend to feds or other customers.


Some in the community are accepting a degree of social responsibility and helping out.
For example, Unisys Corp.’s federal group under president Jim McGuirk has adopted
Freedom Hill Elementary School in Fairfax, Va. Unisys employees have volunteered their own
time, not the corporation’s financial resources. Similarly Litton PRC Inc.,
Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Electronic Data Systems Corp., Boeing Co. and Tandem
Computers Inc.—in fact, 112 organizations—have adopted local schools.


I am less familiar with what individuals and groups of federal employees can accomplish
by adopting and helping schools. Undoubtedly some of these volunteer stories would inspire
us and motivate others to do the same. I’m collecting case histories, so feel free to
send me stories—my e-mail address is at the end of this column—and I’ll
encourage this paper and other media to regularly cover such activities.


Besides adopting schools, some companies are giving back in other ways. For example,
Intuit Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., has a flagship product, Turbotax, used by millions
of Americans to compute their income taxes.


Recently, Intuit decided to make its Turbotax online product available free to users
making less than $20,000 a year. Intuit reasoned that many people in this category would
have trouble paying the $9.99 the company charged last year for this service or don’t
have the credit card needed to pay online. This is the first free electronic commerce
offering of its kind that I am aware of.


Of course, the people taking advantage of the offer still need to get access to a
computer connected to the Internet, so public libraries and other sources may be needed
for recipients to take advantage of the offer.


Judaism has a phrase for the duty to repair the world—tikkun olam. Christians have
a similar direction from the New Testament, and other religions have equally important
commands to help the less fortunate. No doubt GCN readers are doing just that.


Let’s celebrate a few stories as a relief from issues such as year 2000 and the
problems caused by the proliferation of blanket purchasing agreements.  


Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Brand, Lowell &
Ryan. He has long experience in federal information technology issues. E-mail him at smr@blrlaw.com.

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