Game Changers: Using the PC to Change the World

Dan Scharff

As PC enthusiasts we spend much of our lives finding new and exciting ways to work the technology we love into every facet of our lives. We pay our bills, play games, keep in touch with loved ones, and do business from our computers. They are our hobby, our obsession, our passion.

As computer enthusiasts, we are not strangers to using our interest and knowledge of tech for the benefit of others. The Internet is filled with user-created and supported software that are available to all, regardless of financial need or experience level. Some of us provide education and guidance to others through forums and knowledge base sites. We donate our old or extra hardware to groups or individuals in need. Among us are the heroes who use a mouse and keyboard at work to fill invoices and write programs, then come home to don superhero capes and use these same tools to provide education, inspiration, and creative outlets for others. Below are just some of the many who have gone above and beyond to use their love of computers and technology to improve the lives of others.

The College Difference

Cornell University, located in Ithaca, NY is home to a group of students, faculty, and community members who strive to provide technology to those that do not have access. The Cornell Computer Reuse Association began when Al Heiman, a faculty member of the college’s IT department, noticed that Cornell updated their computers every three or four years, simply getting rid of these old computers that were still in good working order.

Heiman decided to gather together like-minded individuals on campus and, starting in 2004, began organizing donations to schools in Ghana and South Africa. In the fall of 2006, the CCRA officially became a student group on Cornell’s campus.

The mission of the group is “to donate computers and other computer-related technology to humanitarian organizations in the developing world and in the local Ithaca community”. In their five years in existence, the group has donated over 1200 computers in the United States and in countries all around the world.

The CCRA makes sure that each computer that is donated meets a certain standard set by the organization. The group's goal is to provide computers that can be used for basic tasks such as browsing the Internet, and completing productivity tasks such as word processing and spreadsheets.

Machines acquired from the Cornell campus have its operating systems reinstalled, while donated computers have the hard drive wiped using a freeware program known as Darik’s Boot & Nuke (DBAN).

From left to right: CCRA group members Henry Huan, Jason Wang, Denise McEnerney of the Hanger Theatre, Amy Allen, and Nathan Baron-Schmitt deliver a donation of computers to the Hanger Theatre in Ithaca, NY.

The desktops and laptops are installed with Windows XP and the appropriate drivers, and are then loaded up with free software such as Oracle’s Open Office, Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome web browsers, Gimp photo editing suite, and antimalware software such as Malwarebytes. All donated computers contain at least a Pentium 4 processor and a decent amount of RAM, usually 512MB or more for desktops and slightly less for laptops.

International organizations are given newer models, usually 3-4 years in age. The CCRA’s hope is that these machines will last longer and will be easier to setup and repair in places that do not have access to reliable PC services.

The group’s current president, Jason Wang, recalls a story in a recent interview about the impact this organization has made on individuals and communities around the world. “My personal favorite story is our donation of desktops and laptops to a Nigerian orphanage run by CORAfrica (Children of Rural Africa). Starting in 2007, we started donating laptops to its orphanage so that the children would have access to computers for their education (the orphanage doubled as a school for the children). In 2009 when we donated about 10 laptops, the director asked us for another 30 desktops. We assumed that the desktops were still for the kids in the orphanage, so we donated them to him in the fall of 2009. Afterwards, we learned that he actually used these desktops to set up a technical college right next to the orphanage (he literally built the technical college around the computers we donated). Because there were now two schools right next to each other, the orphanage was able to convince the government to drill a well there so that the children did not have to carry water back from the river every day. That is the kind of impact we would like to have with the computers we donate: the computers directly benefit the many that use them, and indirectly benefit the whole community.”

Students at the community college in Nigeria using donated computers from the CCRA.

In the future the organization plans to establish working relationships with other colleges and universities across the United States. The group is also looking  for grants and public support to assist in their shipping operations. “Being a student group, we really only have the money to box up the computers and to buy some of the power supplies for laptops/old monitors. A single international shipment is at least a few thousand dollars and we only fundraise $200-300 a year on campus. So currently, the places we are donating to are paying for the shipping costs since it is far cheaper than buying computers in many countries (especially in Africa). We don't want to not do a shipment because the shipping costs are too expensive, so we are looking at ways to cover the expenses for organizations that can't afford it.”

You can donate to the organization by visiting their website and clicking the “ Support Us ” link.

Changing the World: Beginning at Home

It’s no secret that most jobs now require some degree of proficiency in computer skills. Adults who do not have access to computers or lack the means to receive education and training can find themselves at a large disadvantage in today’s competitive job market. A group of philanthropists in Northern Virginia decided to establish an organization that would change all that.

Computer C.O.R.E. (Community Outreach & Education) is a coalition of churches and community groups who have decided to work together to provide computer skills and software training for members in their local communities.

The organization’s mission statement is to “help low-income adults acquire the technological and life skills they need to pursue career aspirations, building careers and community.” Their goal is to assist in “helping Northern Virginians find a job, launch a career and become self-sufficient.”

Students who enroll in the program are given a home computer (to continue improvement of skills and have access to job opportunities), and the opportunity to enroll in Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), apply for financial aid and receive college credits for coursework at CORE. The average cost for tuition and materials is $200.00.

A CORE Instructor teaches a computer class to new students on basic internet skills.

To complete the program, students must complete 114 hours of training in Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer and email, receive training in keyboarding, and take part in job-readiness training and job-placement assistance.

The CORE program has witnessed numerous success stories and positive changes in the communities in which they are located. Lynn O’Connell, execute director of the organization, took the time to share one of the many success stories of  their program. “Sammy came to the U.S. from Ghana in 1994 and was working as a part-time associate pastor in a church when someone in his congregation suggested he enroll at CORE to augment his skill set.  Although Sammy had a B.A. in Theology from Ghana, his lack of computer skills made it difficult to find jobs.  Upon joining the Spring 2010 class, Sammy soon became proficient in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and using email.  Through a connection from a CORE staffer, Sammy got an interview with State Farm, and is now an agent at an office in Vienna, VA.  Sammy hopes that this job will be a stepping stone to a new career and new opportunities to help others.  He would like one day to create a church-based computer lab to help under-served children learn fundamental computer skills.”

A look at one of CORE's classrooms at their Providence campus.

The organization is currently looking for computer donations, including CPU towers, flat-screen monitors, and computer peripherals, specifically keyboards and mice. Do you have a computer sitting at home that has: 1) a Pentium III or higher 2) minimum 256MB RAM 3) at least a 20GB hard drive 4) A CD drive? If so, visit the CORE website and click on the “Get Involved” and “ Donate Computers ” link to lend your support to a worthwhile cause.

The Mobile Humanitarians

In the next three years, the number of smart phone users is expected to exceed the one billion mark worldwide. The world has become a mobile environment, and the expectations of what cell phones can do in people’s daily lives has barely been realized. A group of young visionaries have decided to tap into the wide network of mobile technology to create mobile learning games with their company, MindSnacks.

The goal of Mindsnacks and its founder, Jesse Pickard, is to build fun and educational games that will change the way people learn. “The idea came about as I was going to a Spanish tutor in NYC as I prepared for a trip to South America. Every week I would struggle to find an hour of uninterrupted time for my lesson. One day I looked around on the subway and I saw everyone glued to their phones playing casual games. I knew then that there was an opportunity to mix casual mobile gaming with language learning. At that point, I talked with a few of my future co-founders and they also struggled with the traditional methods of learning a language. MindSnacks started soon after that.”

The organization currently offers their apps on the iOS platform and are developing their suite for Android as well. Their current  suite of games teach language skills in Spanish, French, and Italian. The apps focus on improving users’ vocabulary, reading, writing, listening and conversation skills. The games are colorful and addictive, full of mini games that feature progress tracking, in-game rewards for milestones, even the ever-popular Facebook Login feature!

Mindsnack's Offices in San Francisco, CA.

Most importantly, MindSnacks creates their educational games with personalized learning algorithms to maximize memorization and retention, along with audio and visual aids to reach multiple learning styles, whether the user is a beginner or intermediate language learner. All of their apps are designed with the help of several Ivy-League language experts. MindSnacks have also added an in-house educational content team that handles all content creation and learning design.

The hard-working people at MindSnacks have seen positive results from their apps in several different learning environments. One example is found in data from an ongoing pilot program at Amity Orange Middle School in Connecticut, which has revealed that students playing MindSnacks Spanish in class for only 15 minutes a day "mastered" an extra 31.4 Spanish vocabulary items per week ! That number doubled to 63 extra Spanish items per week when students were allowed to take the apps home with them.

The Mindsnacks Team

"This is a very good way to remember vocab and have fun at the same time.  We should play this game more often and take it home more" stated a boy named Jake, one of the students from the classroom study.

In the future, MindSnacks plans to expand their suite of mobile learning apps. “We're going to continue improving our games and expand outside of languages to test prep (SAT Vocab, etc) and a wide variety of other subjects. We're also extremely excited about building in a multi-player aspect to our games” stated CEO Jesse Pickard.

Computers have the power to enrich and expand our lives, providing opportunities that every person, regardless of location or financial standing, should be able to have access to. The individuals who established the groups and organizations in this article began with an idea and took a single step forward to begin their journey to use computers to change their world. Their work is proof positive that computers can provide much more than play games and videos of cats. The next time you flip on your computer, think about what you can do with your passion to make a positive impact.

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