October 2007 // Volume 45 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA2

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Use of Computer Technologies by Educators in Urban Community Science Education Programs

This article examines the factors that influence computer use by youth educators working in community-based organizations in urban, low-income communities. Although access to computers technologies is not a limiting factor and educator computer skills are generally adequate, attitudes about the importance of computer use in youth programs and awareness of the content of computer tools and types of applications do appear to limit the use of computers. Extension programs should provide training opportunities for community educators to develop their computer skills and raise their awareness of the diversity of computer and related learning technologies.

Alexey Kudryavtsev
Graduate Student
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Marianne Krasny
Professor and Director of Graduate Studies
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Gretchen Ferenz
Sr. Extension Associate and Program Leader, Urban Environment
Cornell University Cooperative Extension - NYC
New York, New York

Lisa Babcock
Extension Associate, Urban Environment
Cornell University Cooperative Extension - NYC
New York, New York


Outreach and Extension programs increasingly are using computer technologies to deliver services and resources to the public. Examples include videoconferences (Pankow, Porter, & Schuchardt, 2006), Webcasts (LGEAN 2004), electronic newsletters (Westa, Broderick, & Tyson, 2005), online communities (Kallioranta, Vlosky, & Leavengood, 2006; Schlager & Fusco, 2004), youth education programs (Mutchler, Anderson, Taylor, Hamilton, & Mangle, 2006), and curriculum and training materials on Web sites and CDs (Dunn, Thomas, Green, & Mick, 2006; Mayfield, Wingenbach, & Chalmers, 2006; Penuel, Bienkowski, Korbak, 2005; Zimmer, Shriner, & Scheer, 2006).

When working in low-income urban and other under-resourced communities, Extension staff need to ensure that audiences are able to access the various digital tools. The ability to use computer technologies is often viewed through the lens of the "digital divide," or the gap between those people and communities that can effectively use information and communication technologies and those that cannot (Norris & Conceicao, 2004; Shelley & Thrane, 2004; Warschauer, 2003).

Originally, the digital divide referred to the lack of access to computer technologies and Internet connectivity (Mitchell, 2003; Mossberger & Caroline, 2003). Even recently, studies that address the digital divide in communities served by Extension are based on the premise that the digital divide refers to access (Elbert & Alston, 2005). However, Cullen (2001) argued that this is a more complex issue, and identified four factors that may influence the digital divide:

  • Physical access to computer technologies. Organizations may not have computers, other digital devices, software, and Internet connectivity.

  • Computer skills and support. Individuals who have computers and other digital tools may not use them because of lack of skills.

  • Attitudes and awareness. People may have and use computers but not deploy them to their full potential because they fail to see how sophisticated computer technologies can contribute to their professional development or provide other services.

  • Content. People may not use the Internet and other computer technologies because the content of digital materials is not interesting or relevant.

Although access to computer technologies has been described in the literature (Elbert & Alston, 2005), little is known about other factors that are influencing the use of computers in community settings served by Extension. In this article, we explore the four digital divide factors in urban low-income communities and investigate how community educators are using digital materials in their after-school and other non-formal youth education programs.

Research Questions

We examined components of the digital divide and related computer use as follows:

  • How do access to computers, educator skills and attitudes, and content of digital materials limit the use of digital technologies in education programs at community-based organizations (CBOs) in urban, low-income communities?

  • How are urban educators using digital materials in after-school and other youth programs for their own professional development and in the implementation of youth education programs?


We conducted two separate studies. The first was a qualitative study conducted within the context of the Garden Mosaics program in NYC, and the second was a written survey of CBOs in six US cities.

Study 1. Computer Use in Garden Mosaics in NYC

Garden Mosaics Program

Garden Mosaics is a youth and community science education program, through which youth learn about environmental science in urban community gardens within an intergenerational, multicultural, and action context. Originally developed by Cornell University in collaboration with community education programs in cities across the U.S., it has recently moved to a permanent home with the American Community Gardening Association. Funders have included the USDA, NSF, and the Weed Science Society of America. The program's mission is "connecting youth and elders to investigate the mosaics of plants, people, and cultures in gardens; to learn about science; and to act together to enhance their community." From 2001-05, Garden Mosaics reached about 700 educators and 12,000 youth across the U.S. and in Canada <http://www.gardenmosaics.org>.

Garden Mosaics employs computer technologies for educator training, curriculum resources, and program implementation as follows:

  • Curriculum on Web site, including illustrated fact and activity sheets, protocols for investigations and community action projects, and program overview;

  • Online databases, where youth report findings from their Garden Mosaics investigations and action projects in community gardens and learn about Garden Mosaics inquiry activities in other cities;

  • Interactive training DVD for educators, which includes footage of educators conducting activities with youth;

  • Web forum, which allows educators from different cities to share their ideas about implementation of Garden Mosaics and about science education.


Participants in study 1 were eight educators from four after-school programs and four CBOs in low-income communities in NYC. In spring 2005, Cornell University Cooperative Extension-NYC created a list of about 100 CBOs in the South Bronx that work with 10-18 year-old youth, have community gardens in their neighborhoods, and have computers connected to the Internet. Educators from these CBOs were invited to participate in a Garden Mosaics training workshop, after which they were expected to implement the program with youth.

Fifteen educators took part in the 2-day training workshop in May 2005, during which they learned how to implement the Garden Mosaics curriculum with youth through demonstrations and hands-on activities and were briefly introduced to the Garden Mosaics online resources and interactive DVD. In June 2006, they were invited to participate in this research project.

Six educators accepted this invitation; nine others did not implement Garden Mosaics during summer 2005 and did not participate in this study. An additional two educators from community gardening organizations in Brooklyn who helped organize a Garden Mosaics workshop for garden activists in February 2005, also took part in this research. Among the eight educators, seven are women, three are immigrants, and six represent minority groups (African-American, Hispanic, and South-Asian). The size and number of staff in these organizations vary significantly, from organizations that do not have an office but have more than 10 volunteer educators, to after-school programs that are part of larger community development corporations and have several full-time educators.

Interviews and Observations

In June-July 2005, we conducted semi-structured interviews (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Mason, 2002) with eight educators to determine the availability of computer technologies in their organizations and their computer skills and attitudes. We also visited their organizations and observed their facilities (computer labs, available digital technologies) and conducted observations of the use of Garden Mosaics digital materials by educators in two organizations. In addition, three educators from the NYC CBOs voluntarily participated in a Garden Mosaics online forum during June-August 2005, along with 27 other educators from 10 states. We interviewed these three educators about the benefits that they received from participation in the forum relative to learning about the Garden Mosaics curriculum, sharing ideas about environmental and science education and networking with peers.

Study 2. CBO Survey of Computer Use

We conducted a written survey of educators from 21 urban CBOs serving minority and immigrant youth, which were identified as being likely to participate in future science enrichment programs by five larger educational organizations (Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami FL, Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley CA, Saint Louis Science Center, University of the District of Columbia, and Cornell University). Rather than a random sample, the respondents could be considered as representative of CBOs likely to form collaborations with urban Extension programs. Only one CBO in NYC participated in both study 1 and study 2. The number of employees in the CBOs ranges from 1 to 42, and the majority of the youth and staff are from underrepresented minority groups (predominantly African-American and Hispanic). The survey included questions about Internet access and use of computers with youth.


Study 1. Computer Use in Garden Mosaics in NYC

Access to Computer Technologies

Because educators were chosen for this research from the population that has computers and Internet access, questions about access focused on types of computer technologies they were using. All the educators use computers and the Internet at work and/or at home at least a few times a week. Their computers are adequate to run software for education programs; only one educator had obsolete computers in her organization and thus could not download some program resources (e.g., PDF files). Four CBOs have computer classrooms with more than six computers connected to the Internet available for use by youth. All CBOs have basic computer peripherals (printers, DVD players, speakers, etc.) and other digital devices (e.g., digital cameras).

Computer Skills

All interviewed educators were able to use generic computer applications, such as Microsoft Office and Internet browsers. Two participants of this study had basic Web design skills and used graphic design programs. Only one educator used computers just for checking emails and creating simple word-processing documents and was unwilling to learn other simple computer programs. All educators developed their computer skills themselves through "trial and error" and with help from colleagues; only one educator had participated in computer workshops.


The eight community educators were split in their attitudes toward computer technologies. Four educators enthusiastically described integration of computer technologies into their education programs; they also claimed that computers help them learn about education curricula and assist their professional development. These educators reported that they already use the Internet to download lesson plans, "find new ways to teach the same things," look for illustrations for teaching youth in their programs, and check for grant related information. One of these educators finds that the Internet is useful for locating community gardens and accessing neighborhood maps for outdoor activities with youth. Another participant posts her newsletter for members of a gardening CBO on the Web, which helps "to reach more people and reduce using paper."

In contrast, four educators were not aware of any benefits from the Internet and computer technologies for their education programs other than sending emails and text editing. For example, one educator wanted to become involved in some kind of networking with peers, but did not think that computer-mediated communication could help her to do that: "What I do not like about computers is the feeling that we are so removed from each other. I feel you get so much more when you talk face-to-face with somebody, and you get a real feel of what's going on and the overall enthusiasm."

Content: Use of Garden Mosaics Materials

Curriculum materials on the Web site. Garden Mosaics curriculum materials for educators are available on the Web site in PDF format; educators also received hard copies during the training workshops. Four of eight educators had not visited the Garden Mosaics Web site following the workshop because they thought the printed handouts had everything they needed. Only one of eight community educators visited the Garden Mosaics Web site repeatedly.

DVD. Of the six educators who participated in the training workshop and received the Garden Mosaics training DVD, three did not use the DVD in the 2 months following the workshop, and one stated that she learned all the important information she would need for program implementation at the workshop and that she did not learn much from the DVD afterwards. Another two educators watched the DVD soon after the workshop and found it very helpful for broadening their knowledge about Garden Mosaics. Interestingly, one educator used the DVD for educators to introduce the Garden Mosaics program to youth. Her group of 15 11-13 year-olds watched the DVD on the computer, saw other youth doing Garden Mosaics activities, and became excited about participation in this program.

Web forum. Of the three educators who participated in the Web forum, one had limited experience using computers and was nervous about the idea of joining the forum. However, after a trial experience she enjoyed communication with other educators throughout the country, and, in fact, was one of the most active Web forum participants. In the beginning of the forum, educators experienced some technical problems, which nearly discouraged them from participation. However, once we assisted them in overcoming technical problems, participants stated that the forum was helpful for learning about Garden Mosaics. Their messages on the Web forum discussion boards indicate that they benefited from networking with other educators across the U.S. (Kudryavtsev, 2006).

Online databases. Educators were informed at the workshops that youth can submit results of their investigations and action projects to the databases on the Garden Mosaics Web site. Two of the eight educators understood the educational value of the databases for youth. For example, one of them said, "I like the data-sharing and stories. It gives students the chance to write about and express their experience with the gardens; it allows them to read other experiences, so they do not feel that they are alone." However, six educators were not aware of benefits from using these databases with youth and did not understand how to submit the information to the databases.

Study 2. CBO Survey of Computer Use

Of the 21 CBOs surveyed in May-June 2006, 19 had fast Internet connections, and 18 used computers in youth programs. When asked to rate the importance of: "Using the latest 'hip' digital technologies" as a "means to get youth engaged in learning science," the educators' mean response was 2.1 on a Likert scale of 1-10, with 1 being most important. Using digital technologies ranked slightly lower than "hands-on activities" (1.4), "identifying a problem in your community and using science to help solve it" (1.8), and "communicating with scientists, including scientists who are young and culturally diverse" (2.0).

For the three CBOs that do not use computers with youth, reasons given included lack of access, prohibitive costs, logistics (youth group too large for computer lab), and an emphasis on nature-based rather than classroom type programs (this CBO used hand-held GPS devices with youth in their outdoor activities).

The remaining 17 CBOs cited the following uses of computers in their youth programs: Internet research (8 responses), online learning activities (4), GIS/GPS (2), presentations (2), and design projects (2). Several other uses received one response each, including for homework, as rewards, to demonstrate concepts using CDs, PDAs in field work, and for making budgets.


The results of this study suggest that if Extension is to play a role in bridging the digital divide in low-income, urban minority communities, access to computers and the Internet may no longer be a major concern. Similarly, whereas lack of computer skills limited the use of computers among some NYC educators, this problem was readily overcome with minimal support.

Although the sample sizes in this study were small, the finding that access to computers is no longer a major barrier to urban Extension programs is supported by the fact that Cornell Cooperative Extension-NYC was able to identify approximately 100 CBOs in low-income communities with Internet access, and by the observations of our colleagues in other cities that CBOs generally have access to Internet technologies (personal communication, N Stein, Lawrence Hall of Science; H Hughes, Saint Louis Science Center). Thus, whereas we cannot definitively say that most CBOs have Internet access, it appears that finding CBOs working in urban minority communities that have Internet access is not a problem.

Attitude toward computer technologies and awareness of content appeared to be important factors limiting the use of digital resources in Garden Mosaics, where only half the educators used computers in their youth programs. However, the written survey conducted 9 months later suggests that computer use in CBO youth programs is much more widespread, with nearly all educators incorporating computers into their youth programs. It is possible that the difference in timing between the two studies accounts for some of this discrepancy because it may be that the use of computers in urban CBOs is relatively recent. Another possibility is that the CBOs in the second study had a longer history of collaboration with science museums and other larger organizations that supported their use of computers.

Furthermore, the ways in which Garden Mosaics uses technology in its youth programs, i.e., for reporting results to the Internet, may not be aligned with CBO youth practices. The survey indicated that youth in CBO programs use computers for Internet research and learning activities, rather than for data reporting and other uses. That reporting results is not a preferred use of computers by youth programs is supported by the results of a 2005 Garden Mosaics evaluation survey of 591 CBO and Extension educators from across the U.S., which revealed that even though 83% of educators had computer access at work, only 9% of Garden Mosaics youth programs submitted reports to the online databases. Of those groups that did submit reports, the educators felt that "youth seeing their work on the Web site" was more important than "computer use being a good experience for the youth" or "youth feeling as if they were contributing to the work of scientists" (Kudryavtsev, unpublished data).


Extension educators working with urban CBOs should no longer be guided by the notion of the digital divide as limited access to computer technologies. Rather our results suggest that Extension programs that target low-income urban communities need to consider demonstrations of new and innovative computer uses in educational programs and discussions of the values of these technologies as professional development and educational tools. Finally, knowing that youth are motivated by using "hip" technologies, Extension should make a concerted attempt to engage youth and adults working closely with youth in designing the technology component of their programs.


This work was funded by the National Science Foundation (ESI 0125582), the Cornell Urban Scholars Program, Edmund S. Muskie/FREEDOM Support Act Graduate Fellowship Program, and USDA. Thanks to Garden Mosaics Program Leader Keith Tidball and to Ken Reardon and Ruth Sinton of the Cornell Urban Scholars Program for their contributions to this research.


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