November 20, 2008 By Emily Montandon, Associate Editor
Home-based Internet access grew steadily in recent years for most of the U.S. population, but adoption stagnated among minorities and the economically disadvantaged.
Fewer than a quarter of households earning less than $20,000 annually have broadband Internet access, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Internet Project. Broadband penetration grew just 12 percent in this income bracket since 2005, according to the surveys.
By contrast, broadband penetration grew by more than 20 percent in every other income bracket. It's often argued that citizens who lack access to technology will be left behind in a society in which computer skills - especially the ability to navigate the Internet - are necessary for jobs, shopping and interacting with government.
Enter the Make It-Take It program, a project of the Florida Institute for the Study of Digital Inclusion. Make It-Take It is designed to give underprivileged children access to technology, computers and related skills. Aside from the long-term benefits of technology literacy, the program teaches skills that could lead students twoard tech-oriented careers.
Using donated and disassembled equipment, the Make It-Take It program teaches children how to build their own computer, load the operating system and install antivirus software. When the course is finished, students take the computers home, and most of them receive complimentary home Internet access for one year.
Students also learn to use common office software - such as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint - gain Internet skills and safety knowledge, and learn how to troubleshoot problems. Through the institute, partnering organizations receive Microsoft licenses to load operating system and Office software for a nominal fee.
A Growing Program
The program started in 2001 with a grant from the Florida Department of Education. Since its inception, the Make It-Take It program has been implemented in counties across Florida and has graduated more than 1,100 students.
The Institute for the Study of Digital Inclusion provides curricula to partnering organizations, but the partners can adjust the material as needed. What's consistent, however, is the sense of ownership the class is meant to instill in students.
"If you take a computer and give it to a child, really, it doesn't have much significance," said Shahram Amiri, CEO of the institute. "We wanted to create a sense of ownership, a sense of the fact that I built this computer."
Once students take the computers home, the benefits are meant to continue. Even though the equipment is donated, there are guidelines to ensure that the equipment won't soon be obsolete.
"We want that computer to last and function for a minimum of two and a half or three years," Amiri said. "Therefore we have to have the right CPU and adequate storage and memory capacity as well as adequate peripherals."
Flagship in Flagler County
One of the first to adopt the program was Flagler County Schools. James Guines, a former school board member, became a crusader for the program in Flagler County after meeting with Amiri through a mutual friend.
"The digital divide is serious," said Guines, who believes it will be the most important problem of this century. "I do truly believe that in this century that the people who have power and control are the ones who can manipulate and use technology for their welfare, and the welfare and benefit of the groups that they work with."
In an effort to bring the program to Flagler County, Guines pitched the Make It-Take It idea to his Rotary Club, the school board and even the local library - none of which were willing to put full support behind the program in the beginning. But Guines eventually gained support from each organization and persuaded local providers to donate equipment, Internet access and space at a