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What is the nature of a learning environment in a community technology center? A case study of a teenage Web page design business

, Stanford University, United States

Stanford University . Awarded


In July of 1999, the government released a landmark report entitled, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide. The report states that “for many groups, the digital divide has widened as the information ‘haves’ outpace the ‘have nots’ in gaining access to electronic resources” (Falling Through the Net, 1999). Falling Through the Net and other policymakers recommend the use of non-traditional points of access, namely community technology centers (CTCs), as resources for low-income members to access computers and the Internet. CTCs, “are places where individuals and groups are encouraged to come and use technology through public access, classes, and other educational programs. Technology access is not an end in itself but rather the means to educational, social, political, and economic opportunity” (Mark et al 1997). Little research exists on these new public entities; one study of CTCs finds that teens are the largest groups of users in these centers (Chow et al, 1998). This study calls for further research to “help define what role the rich learning environments in the centers play for these young people as they grow, and what roles the teens play in the life of the centers”. An ethnographic case study of a nationally known community technology center was undertaken. Utilizing Activity Theory as a framework, this study seeks to explore the nature of a learning environment for teens in a community technology center. Using primarily participant observation for fourteen months, the study centers on a teenage web page design business nestled within a CTC called Plugged In Enterprises (PIE), located in East Palo Alto, CA. The study uncovers a series of cycles (web design, daily, transition and training) that recur periodically at PIE, and discovers an effective learning environment consisting of three educational models: urban sanctuaries, constructionism, and work-based learning. The study finds tensions among the three models but proposes to resolve the tension by recommending an apprenticeship model to alleviate the conflict between “serving community” and “serving clients”. If programs like PIE are replicable, scaleable and self-sustainable, it has significant implications for reconceptualizing intellect, building diverse communities, and bridging the digital divide.


Martin, N.B. What is the nature of a learning environment in a community technology center? A case study of a teenage Web page design business. Ph.D. thesis, Stanford University. Retrieved April 20, 2019 from .

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