University of Maryland-Based Trio Program Tackles Digital Divide
College Park, Md. Traditionally, programs falling under the TRIO umbrella of federally funded college prep initiatives for disadvantaged students have not been known to focus on the digital divide. Nevertheless, an initiative based at the University of Maryland at College Park titled ProjectLINKS may signal a new day for TRIO as a bridge across the digital divide. Last month, Maryland state officials unveiled ProjectLINKS (Linking Information Networks and Knowledge to Students) before an audience of local K-12 county school representatives, college students, university faculty members and local middle school students. Officials treated audience members to a demonstration of ProjectLINKS, which is a Web-based software program that facilitates tutoring between a student and a tutor based in separate locations. The custom-designed program, aimed at middle schoolers, helps students strengthen both their academic skills and computer know-how.“Human interaction really sets this program apart from others. The students and mentors form a personal connection as they work on skills directly tied to the students’ actual schoolwork,” says Shirley Morman, principal investigator for ProjectLINKS and director of the Educational Talent Search, which is the longtime TRIO program based on the College Park campus. Morman says the idea for ProjectLINKS was conceived after the U.S. Department of Education requested proposals for new TRIO initiatives that could serve students not in schools already affiliated with TRIO. She explains that the online approach resulted from an interest to expand the reach of Educational Talent Search’s Saturday Scholars program. Since 1991, the Saturday Scholars initiative has attracted middle and high school students to Maryland for academic enrichment that included instruction in one of the university’s computer-equipped classrooms. Nonetheless, the program has had limitations in that it has largely accommodated students whose families can provide transportation, according to Morman. “With ProjectLINKS there are no such barriers. We can reach the students who are most in need; those who have access to the fewest resources to prepare themselves for success in a competitive world,” Morman says. University of Maryland officials are optimistic that the ProjectLINKS program can become a national model since most online tutoring programs have been developed in the private sector. They also see it as a program that could help enhance the national stature of TRIO. “(ProjectLINKS) is within the framework and mission of what TRIO is all about. It’s a creative use of resources,” says Dr. Robert Hampton, associate provost for academic affairs and dean for undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland. Since October 2000, teachers and administrators from Prince George’s County schools in Maryland in association with university officials have worked to help develop the project. A number of University of Maryland students have donated hundreds of hours of volunteer time to spearhead technical development of the ProjectLINKS Web software program. Peter Thairu, a 2001 University of Maryland graduate in computer science and the leader of the ProjectLINKS technical team, says the Web software package is comprised of custom design programming features as well as shareware and off-the-shelf software programs. In comparison to other tutoring programs available from the Internet, Thairu says ProjectLINKS incorporates a number of features, such as e-mail and a white board, he has yet to see offered completely in one package. He adds the design of ProjectLINKS assumes no prior computer experience on the part of a student using the program.“One of our design goals was simplicity. A lot of other programs assume their users have considerable experience with computers. We are targeting middle schoolers, some of whom don’t have much exposure to computers,” Thairu says. According to officials, a launch group of 28 Prince George’s students from Kettering Middle School, 26 students from Buck Lodge Middle School, and 26 students from Oxon Hill Middle School have received free computers as part of the program. In addition to tutoring, the 80 students have been invited to participate in a computer skills and academic enrichment day camp this summer. Morman adds that 40 University of Maryland students have completed training to be online tutors. “I think it’s going to be fun. From the demonstrations we saw, I think I’m going to like it,” eighth-grade student Trevon Jenifer told the Prince George’s County Gazette during the demonstration ceremony.This fall, a second cohort of 80 students will be brought into the ProjectLINKS initiative. Students already in the program will be able to continue receiving online tutoring next school year, according to Morman. “As technology becomes more complicated it is important that everyone is involved and is allowed the opportunity to help themselves,” Kettering Middle School principal Legaunt Jones told the Prince George’s County Gazette.
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