Finding a Cure for Technophobia

by Melissa Merli

Originally published in The News Gazette, March 5, 2000


Sehvilla Mann, a 14-yearold Urbana girl who is homeschooled, wanted to get over her "technophobia."

Ahlem Skandrani, a 26-year-old University of Illinois economics major, hoped to pick up some basic skills in computer programming.

Larry Jackson, a 40-plus telemarketer, wanted to learn more about computers to make himself a more valuable employee.

They are among about 50 people this semester who are whittling away at the so called Digital Divide by taking free computer classes at the Computer Learning and Mentoring Center in downtown Urbana.

"It's really nice," SeLvilla said after class on a recent Saturday. "It's informative. I'm learning a lot and I understand it."

The center ( is offering five computer programming courses this semester, all free of charge and taught by volunteer instructors. The classes generally meet once a week for two hours on evenings or weekends; classes run for about 12 weeks.

In early March the center will start a new course for employees of nonprofit organizations.

"We get a lot of calls from nonprofits who can't afford to hire a professional," said Molly Stentz, the center coordinator. "A lot of times an organization has a volunteer who's designed something and then left. We hope to train people who can become the in-house technician for their organization."

The Computer Learning and Mentoring Center also recently applied for nonprofit status. It plans to raise money to finance itself. It's been largely supported by On the Job Consulting Inc., an information technology consulting company.

CLAM classes meet at On the Job's offices at 109 Goose Alley in a second-floor space with a couple of overstuffed chairs and couch, an exposed brick wall, and computers lined up on tables near a large, white dry-erase board.

Sigfried Gold, president of On the Job, started the firm and free classes in the summer of 1998. The classes were designed to train potential employees for On the Job and to provide jobs for local activists.

The center, which uses about a dozen personal computers donated by Prairienet, separated from On the Job about a year ago, Gold said, although some of the volunteer teachers work at On the Job.

Before starting the firm, Gold had been doing computer programming for about 13 years, mostly in Chicago. His degrees are in creative writing.

"When I finally got to the point in my career where I could support myself part-time," he said, "I went on a quest to meet interesting people to do art and activism. I found the School for Designing a Society."

The school is an 8-year-old Urbana-based group of teachers, activists, performers and artists who design an intentional community through classes, discussions, workshops and projects on a variety of topics.

In the summer of 1996 Gold attended the school's session at Dreamtime, an ecovillage in Wisconsin. He liked it so much he decided to return to Urbana-Champaign, where he had grown up, to start his firm and become more involved in the school.

Gold in part started On the Job to provide good-paying part-time jobs to some of the school's participants so they could have time for activism and art. The free computer classes at the center also have helped three former students find jobs, including Bob Cook, who is doing programming in Chicago.

To give back, the 26-year-old Cook returns to Urbana each weekend to co-teach a Unix computer class with Brandon Bowersox, a UI junior studying math and library science. Bowersox works part-time at On the Job and teaches two Unix computer classes at the center.

The 19-year-old Bowersox said he enjoys the chance to learn about teaching and to empower people with computer knowledge.

"They make a Web page or get a job in a technological field and that allows them to do a lot of things," he said. "A lot of technological people horde the knowledge, and you have to go to a training school or sit through horrible classes. I'd rather give it away in a fun sort of weekly party."