Neophytes wanted: Learn, spread PC skills

04/21/03

Chris Seper


Plain Dealer Reporter

Victoria Harrison
wants to pay bills online and use a computer to write her autobiography.
Right now, though, she'd be grateful to find the "on"
button.

"I've seen
ads that say If your grandchildren can learn it, so can you,' "
said Harrison, 73, struggling in her second week of class at the
Ashbury Senior Computer Center in Cleveland. "But I don't know.
Maybe there's something wrong with me."

Harrison is
the kind of student Ashbury wants. The 6-month-old center is embracing
high-tech neophytes. First, it will train them. Then, it will use
them.

The center is
like many in Cleveland trying to create a place to spread technology
through a neighborhood. First, it will teach seniors to use computers
and invite local clubs in to use computers for free. Then students
will become volunteers to spread technology through Ashbury's Glenville
neighborhood.

"The center
can become an information depot," said Wanda Davis, Ashbury's
founder. "It can serve seniors and the community as a whole."

Experts and
organizers think computer centers have the potential to be a kind
of digital church, making it the focus of high-tech life in a community.

In the past
few years, new centers have sprung up thanks to philanthropic initiatives
through city and state governments, the Cleveland Foundation and
companies such as Adelphia and SBC.

But teaching
the basics of computing and moving on to larger projects can take
a long time, experts warn.

Angela Stuber,
who runs the Ohio Community Computer Network in Columbus, said about
half the state's computer centers have gone from teaching basic
computer skills to advanced classes about online banking, graphic
design and other applications.

Bill Callahan
ran the West Side Community Computer Center in Cleveland for seven
years and kept it focused on selling low-cost computers, offering
low-cost Internet access and providing basic classes.

The center is
slowly experimenting with a neighborhood wireless Internet network
to be broadcast from its West 65th Street and Madison Avenue office.

"A basic
lesson I learned, which is important for people to remember, is
that everybody's learning curve is longer than you wish it was -
including your own," said Callahan, now the director of Digital
Vision, a consortium of more than two dozen local computer centers.
"Once you get people started, they are going to proceed at
their own pace, and a lot of time is involved."

Plus, Internet
use is flattening out, and the last holdouts are stubbornly staying
offline. A new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Study
says a quarter of Americans have never been on the Internet.

A slightly smaller
percentage of Americans - about one-fifth - has either purposely
jumped offline or get the benefits of the Web by asking someone
else - a relative, for example - to go online for them, according
to "The Ever-Shifting Internet Population," released last
week.

Turning a computer
workroom into a neighborhood resource takes more than just technology,
experts said. Grant money is still hard to come by for both skilled
staff members and new equipment.

Sometimes, centers
that teach only basic computer education and don't move on to lessons
like online banking falter and outlive their usefulness, said Mary
Stansbury, an assistant professor of library and information science
at Kent State University and co-author of the upcoming book, "Virtual
Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide."

Computer centers
usually become social hubs in their neighborhoods if they have driven,
charismatic founders, Stansbury said.

Co-workers and
friends say Davis is that type of force behind the Ashbury Senior
Computer Center.

Patience, or
lack of it, was one of the reasons she started the center, just
off East 110th Street and Ashbury Avenue. Davis herself had sought
out computer classes but found young teachers to be impatient with
seniors.

So she racked
up money from local council members and foundations and put 10 computers
and a projector in an empty room adjacent to her family's landscaping
business.

More than 100
students, overwhelmingly seniors, take free classes throughout the
week, learning the basics of the computer, word processing, database
and spreadsheet programs, and the Internet.

"My son
bought me a computer in 2000," Ashbury Avenue resident Emma
Hill said as she waited for a morning class to get under way. "I
sat and looked at it while my grandchildren played with it."

When she first
came to class, "I couldn't control the mouse." But she's
caught on and was among students who last week plugged in a mock
peach cobbler recipe into a Microsoft Works database program.

When classes
are finished, Hill wants to use the database program in her Mary
Kay Cosmetics business. "We have to begin learning as if we're
going to kindergarten," Hill said.

Ashbury employs
one teacher, but Davis is also there working with the students and
sympathizing with their plight.

Seniors are
chronically frustrated with computers, which are as easy to learn
as a foreign tongue. Many of the people in the room today have raised
families, run small businesses or handled decades of finances and
are getting stymied by a plastic box that beeps.

"Stay steady
- don't let it get away from you," Davis says as she leans
over the shoulder of one student trying to highlight a block of
type.

Davis admits
that taking her first group of intimidated seniors and making them
volunteer teachers could take years. Classes are under way, and
two local street clubs are expected to give the center a try.

But it may take
at least three years to add film-editing classes, include some basic
GED lessons and make Ashbury a digital meeting place.

Classes at Ashbury
play to an underlying theme that there's more beyond the point-and-click
lessons they offer. Tony Tell, Ashbury's teacher and operator of
his own digital media business, started one class by showing a wedding
video he made using computer software.

"There
are so many aspects to a computer," he told the class. "You
can make fliers and create digital media. Don't be limited. Don't
go back to your house after taking your lessons and say, 'This is
all that's in it for me.' "

To reach this
Plain Dealer reporter:

cseper@plaind.com,
216-999-5405

© 2003
The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.