Technology Consulting in the Community (TCinC) engages students as consultants working with local organizations. Different from most "service learning" courses, TCinC student consultants focus on building capacity within organizations to sustain IT solutions without ongoing assistance. They do not merely provide IT support, nor do they focus on system development. Rather they focus on solving organizational problems using IT solutions. In doing so, they may develop a system, or adapt open source or commercial tools as appropriate to the situation. Computing systems do not exist in isolation, but in the context of people, organizations, and their policies. We want to train leaders in our community who can not only develop new technologies, but can solve organizational and societal problems. This course has as its learning goals to build inquiry, communication and leadership skills, in addition to engaging students in project development. At the same time it provides a valuable service in the community.
We created TCinC in 1998 and since then we have worked with several hundred organizations, both near our home campus in Pittsburgh and in Doha, Qatar. (Click here for list of past partners). There were several reasons we developed this unique course.
- To develop student leadership and communication skills. TCinC was created to give students a chance to experience the rich set of issues they will deal with professionally. The course de-emphasizes coding, asking the student instead to analyze complex situations and structure unstructured problems. It asks students to analyze the relationships between technology and people, work functions, organizational structure and the purposes around which structures are organized. By working with the leaders of organizations, students have the perfect vantage point from which to see these connections and can identify ways in which technical capacity can be expanded that enable the organization to realize its mission.
- The course also addresses an important need in the community. Small community-based organizations and businesses have yet to understand how information technology fits into their operations and programs, and rarely do they budget adequately to meet basic technical support needs. If the course were to just provide one semester of technical support, little would change. That is why the course's primary mission is to raise the technical capacity of the organization. By nurturing the organization's internal ability to maintain, operate, and plan for its use of technology, systemic change begins.
- The course also works from an underlying assumption that it is good for the students to experience how their professional expertise is valuable not only in the for-profit sector, but also for non-profits. This course exposes them to organizations that serve an important function in our society, giving students the opportunity to consider career paths that are not traditional for computer scientists. As they move into their professional lives, we hope this experience predisposes students to support the work of community-based organizations with their time and money. Thus, we hope to influence good citizenship and caring beyond self-interest.
This model has expanded to the Technology Consulting in the Global Community program, and as a course at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar.