PowerUP, a massive educational technology effort that undertook to bridge the “digital divide” by installing millions of dollars worth of computer equipment in schools and community centers nationwide, closed its doors for good Oct. 31, leaving schools in need with one less friend to turn to.

Though it failed to eliminate the divide, the program—established in 1999—did succeed in equipping nearly 1,000 high-tech computer labs in underserved areas across the country before pulling the plug.

Backed by such high-profile corporate sponsors as AOL Time Warner Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), PowerUP spent upwards of $50 million on the labs, which were equipped with a hodgepodge of donations from its sponsors.

While Cisco provided high-speed networks for the equipment to run on, HP donated printers, and AOL supplied internet services.

Nonprofit organizations, too, played a role. The Waitt Family Foundation, created by Gateway Inc. founder Ted Waitt, provided from 10 to 20 new Gateway machines for each center, and the Case Foundation—led by AOL Chairman Steve Case—donated $10 million to get the program off the ground.

“The concept was to provide an avenue of access to technology … for people who would not normally have that,” said Al Panico, director of grants for the Waitt Family Foundation.

That’s exactly what happened in certain areas of Mississippi, where PowerUP signed on in January to help create PowerPALS, a network of 66 community technology centers throughout the state, valued at $4.75 million.

According to Betty Laupigg, the project’s director, PowerPALS was a monumental success. While PowerUP provided the equipment for the project, the centers also were supported and staffed by such organizations as the state department of education, the Appalachia Regional Commission, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

At one point, Washington lawmakers even got into the act. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Rep. Charles Pickering, R-Miss., helped obtain federal funds to provide AmeriCorps*VISTA staff to work as assistants in each of the centers.

“We have seen a lot of new partnerships and relationships grown through the program,” Laupigg said. “They have done what they said they would do. We are very pleased.”

Now that PowerUP has folded, it will be up to those new partners to keep the technology centers running, she said.

Though some parties involved have implied that the swooning stock market and sluggish economy contributed to the program’s downfall, PowerUp spokesman Kevin O’Shaugnessy said there were other reasons for shutting down.

According to him, PowerUP lost steam when its slew of high-profile corporate benefactors decided their generosity would be better spent promoting individual efforts rather than collaborative projects with inter-industry partners.

“There was an evolution of what they wanted to do in their philanthropy … away from the PowerUP model,” he said.

PowerUP’s demise is bad news for needy communities in search of better technology access, but its termination will have little effect on the community technology centers it already has helped to build.

That’s because PowerUP was never intended to provide ongoing funding for any of the initiatives, O’Shaugnessy said. Once the centers were on their feet, it became the responsibility of local partners and other community-based groups to keep them running.

He called the technology centers a “collaborative effort.” According to him, the system operated on a three-pronged model in which PowerUP provided the equipment as an initial boost, local partners provided the staffing, and national organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs paid for the maintenance and upkeep of the labs.

“They know it’s their job to keep this thing running,” O’Shaugnessy said. “If it breaks, it’s their responsibility to fix it.”

Looking back over the program’s three-year life span, O’Shaugnessy said he never expected it to last indefinitely, but he was encouraged by what it had accomplished.

“It’s an unqualified success. We’re not saying the digital divide has been bridged and is gone. But PowerUP over the last several years has established more of these centers than anyone else,” O’Shaugnessy said. “There has been a tremendous amount achieved in the past three years.”

Links:

PowerUP (Shut down Oct. 31)
http://www.powerup.org