Smith Family community technology learning centre demonstration site

I didn’t manage to visit the Smith Family’s Community Technology Learning Centre (CTLC) in Collingwood when I was working in Melbourne earlier in the year, but I wish I had. The Centre has recently been declared Australia’s official demonstration site for the Microsoft Unlimited Potential (UP) Programme.

Microsoft are partnering with the Smith Family and other organisations, to set-up and support 150 community technology learning centres throughout Australia. The Australian Unlimited Potential programme – similar to its New Zealand cousin – provides direct funding, a clearing house, promotion, evaluation, software and cirricula. Crucially, support is also provided through the GreenPC recycled computer programme run by Infoxchange Australia.

To coincide with the announcement, the Smith Family released the “Connecting Communities with CTLCs” research report. Kirsty Muir, the report’s author, emphasised that the CTLC approach is about much more than just training people to use technology. Promoting IT literacy uses technology as a means of social inclusion and reintroduction to learning.

“If access to computers and the Internet is provided through a community technology learning centre – be it a youth centre, library, housing facility or other convenient location – it can have an extremely positive impact on the community, leading to increased tolerance, social interaction as well as greater cohesion and personal well being among participants,” Muir said.

The report also lists ingredients for successful and sustainable community technology projects. It’s a list familiar to those of us working who have been working in the community technology field. The key ingredients are:

  • Partnerships and Networks. The most successful CTLCs are those based on solid partnerships involving business, local community organisations and individuals.
  • Community engagement. Local champions in each centre who can interact with and create enthusiasm within the community by involving local residents through volunteering and ensuring centres are appropriate for local needs and conditions.
  • Positive learning environment that is self-paced, self-directed, interest based and interactive.
  • Well-trained and high quality staff and volunteers, who are engaged in the community. CTLCs need to build a support network of volunteers and staff with a wide variety of skills.
  • Appropriate physical location, appearance and setup. CTLCs should be visible in the community and in a location that is safe and accessible via car or public transport.
  • Ongoing evaluation to ensure the centre continues to be relevant and responsible to changing local needs.

There is no reference to open source software in the report. As I am among many who believe that community projects should look toward using open source software, the ommission is troubling. The most charitable way I can view Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential programme is that it contributes to the diversity of support and products available to communities. While I am definitely not advocating an open source dictatorship, I think it is important that NGOs and community organisations take some leadership promoting alternatives to the behemoth of Microsoft. This is particularly important as people on low-incomes can benefit using free products like OpenOffice. I guess this a tension of accepting corporate donations.