BTOP Projects at Work: Developing an Engaging Curriculum

An engaging, tailored curriculum can make all the difference when providing training to people who have had minimal experience with technology. In these communities, the proper training can be a catalyst for change. Two non-profit agencies are using NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant funding to train communities in Washington and Ohio on computer skills and broadband access.

Meaningful Training

The Appalachian Center for Collaborative and Engaged Learning (ACCEL) has learned firsthand that curriculum and training must be relevant and responsive. The ACCEL is a community-based non-profit agency in Ohio that uses technology in an effort to improve people’s lives. ACCEL is one of six lead community agencies to implement the work of the Connect to Your Community campaign, a computer-training program for social and economic advancement. The campaign is funded by an 18 million BTOP grant from the NCIA awarded in 2010.

For its role in the campaign, one of the ACCEL’s main tasks is to provide free computer training to the community. After a consultant from Connect Your Community chose a curriculum from an existing creative commons license, the project’s working group convened to update the curriculum and adapt it to local needs. Connect Your Community will make the modified curriculum available on its website.

According to Mr. Schroeder, the goal of the campaign is to have a community that “is better equipped to use computers and the Internet in a way that they haven’t before – in a way that is meaningful.” As such, the training consists of about 24 hours of classes that begin with the basics (e.g., how to turn on the computer and use a mouse) to more advanced topics (e.g., Microsoft Excel). As of September 2010, over 100 students had participated in the training in ten different locations within three counties.

Mr. Schroeder emphasizes that his agency works actively to create an environment of collaboration – not competition. To these ends, the ACCEL works with several partner organizations to provide the training. For example, the Muskingum County Opportunity Center, a community resource that offers employability assistance, along with some local schools and senior centers, all share their computer lab with the agency.  The Mid-East Career and Tech Center provides classes on advanced topics.

Schroeder has learned some important lessons about conducting trainings. During the hiring process for trainers, Schroeder explained that his first priority was finding "people people." In other words, although the trainers need technical skills, approachable personalities are most critical. During the workshops, he advised that trainers should always have backup plans in case something goes wrong, such as what to do if the network were to go down. Trainers should always be aware of the students’ true grasp of the material and never outpace them. Finally, trainers must allow for time after class ends to field questions and feedback from the students, and be available in the computer lab for additional help.

Choosing and Adapting Curriculum

The EdLab Group’s Community Connect Network (CCN) was awarded a $4.1 million dollar NTIA BTOP grant in the fall of 2010. The overarching goal of the network is to ensure digital inclusion and technology opportunities for all residents of Washington State. According to its website, the CCN project "aims to improve broadband adoption rates, workforce preparation, digital literacy, access to education, justice resources, and training in Washington. The project links rural and urban resources together to serve unemployed, low-income, disabled, immigrants and youth by partnering with five library sites and justice organizations, and community technology centers in low income housing projects, senior centers, youth centers and community centers in the State."

Two of CCN’s major tasks will relate to education and training. One component will be capacity-building training to help public computing centers meet the needs of vulnerable populations by providing workshops on such topics as digital skill building, education, assistive technology, online legal services, and workforce preparation. A second major piece of the grant will be encouraging information distribution and sharing through an online portal. This portal will focus on providing resources such as best practices, curriculum, evaluation tools, and tips on computer lab management, as well as content information on topics such as education, workforce preparation, online safety, legal issues, and financial literacy.

The CCN will primarily make use of extant curriculum. For example, it will use social networking curriculum training modules developed by NPower Seattle, a company that provides technology consulting services to nonprofits in the Puget Sound Region. CCN’s training also benefits from strong partnerships. For example, it partners with the Workforce Development Council (WDC), which provides workforce development planning and promotes coordination between education, training and employment efforts in the community as part of the implementation of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). This partnership gives CCN access to the resources the WDC uses to support job seekers, such as basic computer skills and information on how to build a resume online. The CCN also collaborates with the Northwest Justice Project (NJP), Washington’s publicly funded legal aid program. Through this partnership, the CCN will share legal resources online and train staff on how to use to assist patrons with the resources.

CCN staff will also work to tailor training modules to the needs of people in the community. As Ms. Manuel explained,

For the average person, [a webinar] is not something they are familiar or comfortable with. So thinking about what kinds of archived training content would be useful for different populations. In some cases, it might be videos of trainings, or screen casts or demos.”

Collaboration and Adaptation

The ACCEL and the CCN have learned firsthand that collaborating with other agencies to develop curriculum and provide training is helpful. Most importantly, they have learned that agencies must modify and adapt curricula to suit the unique needs of a community.