Building the Community Computer Lab

Years ago, when I recognized that Internet access was needed in my organization, I was told by others that “we have an AOL modem and nothing more is needed”. That was the consensus in most businesses at the time. I purchased a microwave linked Internet feed (there was no broadband otherwise available at my location) and connected several office computers – and it very quickly became the expectation for business as usual, not an unnecessary luxury.

Today Internet access is ubiquitous. Let our FiOS connection fail for even a few minutes and everyone feels frustrated that they cannot get work done, and in fact we depend heavily upon the Internet for our minute to minute operation: video, VoIP, email, messaging, public announcements, advertising: almost all of our business activities rely in some way on Internet connectivity.

Yet many Americans have only basic computer skills – they can somewhat find FaceBook and waste their day arguing, and they consider themselves to be computer literate, but they have no marketable computer job skills: Office 365, Google Apps, even eMail and Skype may be unfamiliar to them. In a civilization ever more increasingly focused on Information Technology, this has spawned the need for social services organizations to provide free public Internet access and training.

But how does an organization whose skills and focus is people not technical things build an appropriate computer lab? Money helps, but it is not the answer because there is no end to expenses if an organization does not develop some internal technology confidence, and money (for most of us) is not exactly in abundant supply – you don’t get rich providing help for poor people!

Adult Life Training, Inc. exists to  “To holistically improve the lives of our community through training, mentor-ship, and example”. Part of that mission is helping other not for profit agencies with their technology when they request our help. In this article I will explain the basic layout of the Adult Life Training, Inc. computer lab and supporting facilities, with sufficient detail that a nominally technical volunteer can understand and duplicate our successes in their own agency. Because the topic is too lengthy for one post, I intend to release three posts: the first an overview of our lab arrangement and the reasons for it, second a detail of the computer parts used, where we got them and how to choose the parts that you use in your computers, and finally some technical details on how we configured our equipment so it takes care of itself and remains mostly unmolested by criminal interests.


A charity must be run as a business, with clear focus, measurable performance, and an adjustment process that facilitates continuous improvement. To build a computer lab, a charity must first understand why they need a computer lab, then build it to meet their business objectives: simply buying some computers, plugging them into a firewall, and then turning the public loose on them will generally not bring enduring community enrichment.

Without certain professional steps your new computers will in fact be changed into a malware / virus / spam / porn distribution system in roughly 0.001 seconds after opening the door. And it won’t all be from the clientele clicking on illegal music downloads or deliberately viewing objectionable material – Internet criminals detect and begin attacking any Internet connected computers within minutes of the connection. I will explain some things you can do to protect your lab.

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Our commitment to developing an excellent training environment combined with our attitude of service rather than territorial control has resulted in many diverse organizations using the Adult Life Training area through out the week: senior aides train during the day, and evening groups include a deaf ASL group, an addictions recovery group, and our own evening financial literacy and STEM groups.

To meet our mission, which involves such diverse community activities, we have over time developed a specific arrangement: Computers, a movable rack with a projection computer and audio equipment, an administrative office, and a server to maintain the computers.

There are two adjacent rooms, the Bridge Room is filled with computers, and the Community Room has tables and screens for meetings. Both rooms can work together or a dividing door can be closed to use them simultaneously for different activities. A counter top, refrigerator, sink, and microwave provides important hospitality resources in the Community Room that allow our guests to relax and focus on learning. The administrative office door is keyed differently from the other doors in the area so that only Adult Life Training staff can enter, and the file cabinets have locks to meet Federal mandates that there are always at least two locks protecting confidential information. My own workstation and the server are physically located inside the administrative office room.

The rooms themselves, the counter, refrigerator and marker board are available to us through the occupancy generously provided by the Abundant Life Church organization. The tables and chairs came through a generous donation by a private individual and a closing Verizon facility. The screens came to us over time through grants from Verizon Foundation and a local Aetna Insurance office. The original computer hardware was piecemeal castoffs from AEP and monetary donations of the Nash Family Foundation, then  improved with donations of some computers from A+ Computers. The most recent (excellent) hardware and software was purchased as parts and assembled by us through a very generous grant from the 3Rivers Federal Credit Union Foundation.

I detail this not merely to give due respect to the many organizations that have helped us help their community over the last sixteen (16) years, but to encourage those beginning such an endeavor in that we did not start with lots of funding and wonderful hardware: we started without funding and a closet with a big pile of obsolete computers with no operating system licenses that no one knew how to connect.

And I did not start this by one day just thinking “I believe I will start a social services agency that will do wonderful things” – I first lost my (what was represented to me at hiring as) lifetime employment at what was probably the best company I have ever worked with, because a new manager came and he considered me “too expensive” when foreign programmers could be brought in far cheaper than American programmers under the H-1B Visa program. I was 48, a Masters Degree in Business Administration from IU and a Bachelor’s Cum Laude in Electrical Engineering from Purdue with decades of experience and some very profitable projects to my credit. No one would hire me. I was 48, not 30. I prayed. One thing lead to another, and here we are now.

Sometimes you have to lose the good things with which you are content to become the great thing God designed you to become. Have hope. Left foot, right foot. You can do this. — John Nash, CEO of Adult Life Training, Inc.

Computers 1-7 and 9 are for the public, 8 is for the trainer and is connected to all four video screens. We use 32″ screens mounted on the wall directly over the computers in the Bridge Room so that trainees can see what the instructor is doing and follow along. Anything larger than 32″ would have been too close for them to see the screen.  The two screens in the Community Room are 55″ (because that is the largest we could get at that time) and easy to see sitting at the tables. We have an HDMI hub on top of the instructor’s computer rack that allows a person to unplug the rack’s computer and plug in an iBook (or similar) to feed the screens instead – some instructors have their own setup on their laptop. The computers are connected through two 24-port network switches on the instructor’s computer rack.

On the right wall is a 4′ by 6′ marker board arranged in the usual way, but under it we placed two 2′ by 3′ boards, about a foot above the floor – too low for the instructor to use. Single moms need jobs too, and they have children to watch while they are learning. By providing something for the kidos to draw on (plus pencils, pens, crayons, and conventional recycled printer paper – printed on one side) mom can focus on her learning and her kidos are happily and safely engaged the whole time.

The Bridge Room is used for computer centric learning, such as open public Internet use,  instructor lead computer classes, job search and resume development on the Indiana Career Connect system, and learning on the amazing Indiana Department of Workforce Development WIN hard job skills training system. The Community Room is used for classes with more conventional instructor /  discussion formats such as the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University financial literacy classes and business literacy development using the Wallstreet Journal and The Economist periodicals.

Tomorrow I intend to discuss the hardware details in the workstations and server, how much the parts cost, and how to assemble them with volunteers rather than get a lesser computer at more expense from a retail store. You can also buy complete computers from a store for more money.

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