Research informing practice: toward effective engagement in community ICT in New Zealand

Barbara Craig
Victoria University, Wellington

Jocelyn Williams, PhD
Unitec Institute of Technology


New Zealand's Computers in Homes (CIH), a free home internet scheme, has been researched since its inception in 2000 by the authors of this paper in separate studies using different methodologies.  This paper traces the inter-relationship between the research findings over the course of a decade and the evolution of CIH practice in low-income communities, in turn reflecting on a shift in epistemology and thus research design for two new studies in their early stages.  One, a large-scale study, is being conducted at a national level, and includes every new participant in the CIH scheme throughout the country using an online survey to provide baseline data.  A second small-scale case study is being conducted in one urban CIH primary school community that has recently launched the scheme for 31 of its families.  It aims to further explore previous findings about the relationship between social support and community internet, by assessing the value of social media for parents in building a sense of community belonging.  In this article we also address the potential for social media to engage CIH participants in making sense of their own internet experience and thus in owning their own research. We suggest the use of social media in this way may challenge the more traditional ideas and power relations inherent in the researcher-participant relationship in community ICT research.


In this article we bring together the interdisciplinary perspectives of communication studies and education to demonstrate the multiple ways in which our research on Computers in Homes (CIH) in New Zealand is complementing the operational work of this community ICT scheme as its practice evolves to encompass social media use by the scheme participants.  We draw on the growing community informatics literature, and also literature relating to community, social cohesion, and participatory research, as well as referring to our research on CIH since the early 2000s to propose that the CIH model offers an effective intersection between research and practice in the pursuit of a more just society.

In its philosophy and values CIH aims to strengthen low-decile communities to be able to take up opportunities for education and advancement, not only through the provision of ICT hardware but also based on the understanding that the social setting is an important component of successful community internet implementation.  The growing success of CIH, now established in over 200[1] communities throughout New Zealand (Williams, 2009, p. 284), in many ways aligns with emerging theory that grass roots ownership of community internet practice is desirable for its sustainability (Gaved & Anderson, 2006; Loader & Keeble, 2004).  This paper goes further in arguing the case for grass roots ownership of the research.


The CIH scheme was the brainchild of the non-profit 2020 Communications Trust, founded in New Zealand's capital city Wellington in 1996, which already had an established history of successful community-based ICT projects (Newman, 2008; Zwimpfer, 2010).  The concept of the 2020 Communications Trust was "to promote the Info City vision" (Wellington City Council, 1996, p. 3), a strategy sufficiently forward-thinking to come to the attention of the Harvard Business School.  At the time Sid Huff noted

As a central component of its Vision 2020 strategy, the city of Wellington, New Zealand has developed preliminary plans to transform itself into a "wired city." The overarching project was called Info City. Info City actually consisted of a collection of sub-projects, each focusing on a different way in which the city could promote and foster the use of information technology to help move toward the "2020 Vision". (Huff, 1996)

Info City strategies acknowledged the important link between community and economic development and key to this was the establishment of Citylink, a private company set up to open a high bandwidth, low-cost, fibre network to the city across the trolleybus wires (Newman, 2008).  The ongoing aim of the 2020 Communications Trust is "to promote dialogue and understanding through local action" (2020 Communications Trust, 2009) to provide leadership in ICT and deliver programmes that address issues of digital literacy, skills and inclusion, through partnerships with national and local government agencies and businesses to achieve funding for the activities of the non-profit organisation.  The Trust identifies gaps in provision to achieve digital inclusion in NZ communities, devises possible approaches and then seeks to partner with other agents to take action.  Computers in Homes (CIH) is an important example of partnership projects within the purview of the 2020 Trust.

Some of the earliest CIH project sites were part of an experimental community network project called Smart Newtown funded by the local city council.  Smart Newtown was an Info City sub-project, based loosely on the Blacksburg Electronic Village community computer network project in Blacksburg, Virginia that from 1993-2000 enabled 80 percent of residents to access the Internet (Kavanauagh & Patterson, 2002; Kavanaugh, Kim, Perez-Quinones, Schmitz, & Isenhour, 2008).  Newtown, an inner city Wellington suburb on the trolleybus routes, was connected to Citylink and became the local community where the relationship between communication, social capital and civic engagement was to be investigated with a pilot CIH project.   In addition to establishing CIH in the local schools, Smart Newtown provided free internet access and IT training in community centres to residents, and all local businesses were given a web presence.

Other early CIH projects related to the Ministry of Education's call at that time for research into home/school/community partnerships.  Pilot CIH projects were supported by the Ministry of Education and set up in urban low income communities (Cannon's Creek in Wellington, and Panmure Bridge, in New Zealand's largest city, Auckland).  These projects set up in 2000 were concerned with educational outcomes, in particular through getting parents inside the school gates, involved in the life of the school, and providing them with skills to help their children with their school work, then measuring changes such as numbers of parent helpers at school events and attendance at parent-teacher interviews.  In the Flaxmere project, "a series of innovations relating to improving home-school relations within and between the five Flaxmere schools" (Clinton, Hattie, & Dixon, 2007) in a smaller provincial city in the North Island of New Zealand, CIH was the most visible and successful initiative.  Also fully funded by the Ministry of Education, the Flaxmere project experimented with a range of strategies such as homework centres and home-school liaison persons (Perry, 2004) alongside CIH to improve the relations of the five local schools with their communities and to engage parents more fully with their children's learning (Clinton, et al., 2007).

A final project from the early years, referred to colloquially as 'the Tuhoe CIH', was the first to be launched in a rural New Zealand community, and the first to be set up at the request of the community itself.  The Tuhoe, an indigenous Maori iwi (tribe) with15 schools governed by their own educational authority, partnered with the 2020 Communications Trust to work in their schools.  The Tuhoe ('Children of the Mist') live in communities sprinkled throughout a remote, rural mountainous area but with many tribal members also dispersed globally and throughout other New Zealand communities.  These local communities are economically depressed and geographically isolated but with a strong iwi identity and culture.  Through a partnership with CIH and the 2020 Communications Trust, and other partnerships with government and universities, they have installed wireless internet across the valleys, put internet access into homes, videoconferencing into schools and set up a digital gateway to communicate with dispersed tribal members and record their collective history.  CIH in this case was about community development and how the internet can be used for cultural and language preservation and iwi communication (Stillman & Craig, 2006).

Working with CIH communities

What did these early CIH communities have in common?  They featured poor literacy, low educational attainment, little participation in their children's education, low confidence, a history of failure, and more features to be detailed below.  Thus in terms of community development, the CIH scheme sought to build community around the life of the school, providing  parents with new opportunities to pursue their own dreams as well as giving them the tools to support their children through their educational careers.  Early interviews with parents at Cannon's Creek School (Wellington) revealed difficulties for them in becoming involved in their children's education because of a lack of confidence, negative attitudes based on past experiences, and limited understanding of what learning is about (Craig, 2004).  This reflects the socio-economic make-up of this community where the unemployment rate is currently 11.3% compared to 5.2 % across the wider Wellington city region and where 39.4%  have  no educational qualifications compared to 19.8% in the region as a whole (Statistics New Zealand, 2006b).  By the end of the CIH project parents commented on spending more time with their children, on a sense of connectedness with the school, that they had been reminded of the importance of schooling, and that they had not really understood at first how poor their children's achievement had been (Clinton, et al., 2007).

These communities in which the early CIH projects were established were also characterised by their social make-up, predominantly low-income and low-employment, and high minority ethnic populations.  CIH works with those schools that have the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities[2]. Communities included indigenous Maori who had moved from their traditional communities to the cities some generations back, Pasifika peoples who had migrated from the Pacific islands in search of work, and other more recent immigrant and refugee groups.  Through providing a home computer and training adults to use the internet, CIH encourages participants to use online communication to bolster their connections and support networks within their immediate communities.  It also encourages maintenance of identity, language and culture through e-mail and other forms of connecting online with extended family scattered around the globe. The project has also sought to encourage participants to form social networks outside the community, joining online communities that share interests and values.  Training provided to the parents before they take their computers home demonstrates how to access the vast repositories of government, health, and social services information and resources that can be found online that can help migrant or isolated communities understand their rights as citizens.

CIH aims "to provide all New Zealand families who are socially and economically disadvantaged with a computer, an internet connection, relevant training and technical support" ("Computers in Homes ", 2011, 'About CIH' page, ¶2) for a cost of $50 per family.  In practice, this means CIH works with schools to provide a group of families – usually 25 at one time – with a refurbished desktop computer, free broadband internet for six months, weekly two hour training sessions for ten weeks, and technical support provided by the school with paid technicians as needed.  Software includes Windows XP, Office 2007, Antivirus and Spyware, Adobe Reader, Flashplayer, Shockwave and Java, and desktop shortcuts to internet safety and learning sites. 

Core to CIH philosophy is community ownership,  an understanding that aligned perfectly with the New Zealand government's move towards a Digital Strategy (Ministry of Economic Development et al., 2004) formally released in 2007 (New Zealand Government - Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, 2007) and expressed earlier in milestone strategy documents such as Connecting Communities  (Department of Internal Affairs et al., 2002) with its explicit emphasis on partnership, community initiative, and government funding "kick-starting projects that the community can own, and the long term ... [be] funded by non-government sources" (p. 8).  Using ICTs to help CIH communities achieve social, economic and cultural goals begins with local affirmation that the community is ready to mobilise (Williams, 2010b) and involve existing community resources and connections in achieving social inclusion. The social inclusion aim was explicit in one community case study setting (Williams, 2009) where an agency involved in implementing the scheme, Housing New Zealand, viewed CIH as "one tactic in a larger strategy aimed at overcoming neighbourhood social exclusion" (ibid., p. 98), and by CIH itself as a way to "generate pride in community and neighbourhood" (ibid., p. 291).  In this way CIH is seen by providers as having an important role to play in facilitating social inclusion.  Our research suggests there may be a positive relationship between free home internet access and social cohesion (Williams, 2010b).  In the community case study cited above, where internet uptake was more successful and sustained, "the success of the internet intervention ... appears related to the fact that it was 'bedded in' to a fertile social context that helped it flourish and in turn strengthen social ties" (Williams, 2009, p. 234).

Community internet literature

Community is a slippery term, described as "a polymorphous folk notion... of little use" (Postill, 2008, p. 416) and "contested in the eyes of academics" (Loader & Keeble, 2004, p. 4).  Given that the research setting explored in this article, Computers in Homes, is based in geographical areas associated with primary schools, our approach is to understand community as an important "intermediate space" (ibid.) between the family and larger social structures, that fosters opportunities.  Further, to avoid the inherent ambiguity of the term and following Postill (2008) who favours Bourdieu's concept of a social "field" (Williams, 2009, p. 51), we conceive of community as a "field of residential affairs" (Postill, 2008, p. 418) where associations of individuals share some interests and form networks of relationships.  While diffuse networks of online community, facilitated by personal internet and social media, now commonly overlay the web of interpersonal relationships in a local neighbourhood grouping, the starting point for us is the locality.  Thus 'community' for our purposes is a group of people living in a defined geographical area who define themselves as part of a community; it is a symbolic construct that is an outcome of what those people do together.  The widely cited research and claims of Robert Putnam that communities are in decline because of eroding social capital (Putnam, 2000), a process he attributes in part to increased media consumption at home, imply that determined efforts are needed to re-build this intermediate space where families learn to deal with the larger social structures of education, government, and the workplace.  This is the space in which CIH works to facilitate a bridge between the disenfranchised and the cultural capital (Reed-Danahay, 2004) they have not yet been able to acquire.

In the decade between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, during which time CIH was blazing its own innovative trail in New Zealand, opinion was divided on the subject of whether the internet can make communities stronger (Pigg & Crank, 2004).  This was because, on the one hand, "considerable rhetoric ... exists regarding the potential of modern information and communications technology (ICT) to affect the development of social capital in positive ways" (ibid., p. 59), and community internet initiatives are said to "increase productivity across our economy" (New Zealand Government - Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, 2008, 'High-value economy' section).  Thus individuals who do not use computers in the workplace may be economically disadvantaged (Haisken-DeNew & D'Ambrosio, 2003).  However some early internet research suggested that the internet might in fact have a negative effect on social involvement (Kraut et al., 1998; Nie & Erbring, 2000); other studies found that the more people use the internet, the less contact they have with their social environment (Nie & Erbring, 2000) and even that

People who use e-mail heavily have weaker social relationships than those who do not ...and... people who use the internet heavily report spending less time communicating with their families.(Kiesler et al., 2001, p. 4)

Such assertions about the internet eroding social relationships are less relevant now that the technologies of online social networking have become increasingly mainstream.  More recent research suggests that multiple media channels including the internet, available to individuals in family settings, are facilitating communication and kinship (Kennedy & Wellman, 2007), and "the evidence suggests that the internet is ... slowly building local social networks" (Hampton, 2007, p. 739).  Findings in one of the CIH studies we have completed in New Zealand aligns with this evidence.  Results in 2003 – 2005 longitudinal urban case studies imply that existing social networks in a community where a free home internet scheme is implemented (Williams, 2010a) have an important role to play in successful internet uptake.  Additionally the combination of somewhat strong social cohesion that already exists, plus the motivating and mobilising effect of the free internet scheme, may create further social cohesion (ibid.).  These findings echo Hampton (2007) who stresses that positive social outcomes for internet use occur "in those neighbourhoods where context favours local tie formation" (ibid., p. 739).   In other words where the neighbourhood already has an interest in building community, the internet facilitates the building of local social ties.

A distinct shift in thinking occurred by the mid-2000s so that the digital divide began to be seen as an issue with far more complexity than simple internet access (Afnan-Manns & Dorr, 2002; Crump & McIlroy, 2003; Davison & Cotten, 2003; DiMaggio, Hargittai, Celeste, & Shafer, 2004; Fragoso, 2003; Merkel, 2003; Mossberger, Tolbert, & Stansbury, 2003), and that it needed to be reframed as a social development challenge encompassing people's ability to make use of technology (Warschauer, 2003).  Technology education schemes such as Computers in Homes and others (Eubanks, 2007) respond to this issue through a social constructivist approach.  For CIH, this means families, and in particular the adults, acquire IT skills and confidence in collaboration with those they know in social settings.  Furthermore "we do not construct our interpretations in isolation but against a backdrop of shared understandings, practices...[and] language" (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p. 197).  In parallel with this shift in thinking about the digital divide, the authors have focused more intently on the role played by the social context inherent in CIH practice as well as ways to augment it.

The social dimension of Computers in Homes

From the scheme's inception around 2000 CIH has employed socialisation tactics to build a sense of group identity and support.  Perhaps the most obvious tactic used to establish and embed a social dimension among the CIH group is the initial compulsory IT training held at the school over the course of ten weeks.  During this time the parents meet weekly for two hour classes which are highly social by their nature and include time for chatting over supper in the staffroom, and relationship building in general. Then there are the celebratory 'graduations' at which the parents are awarded a certificate showing they have completed their training, the computers are given to them, and they are recognised by their families and the community at large for their achievement.  Additionally CIH requires the host school to organise regular family gatherings after the parents have 'graduated' and taken their computer home that bring the learning community together for peer support.  At these meetings, time is given for discussion of how the home internet experience is going, what issues may have arisen, and what difference internet at home is making to family life.  Peer mentoring, through which more confident adults in the group make themselves available to guide others who are uncertain, is also a feature of the scheme.  Careful identification of existing social networks and assessment of social cohesion in order to identify leaders and confident individuals may therefore favour more successful and sustainable internet use, which in turn may relate to improved social cohesion (Williams, 2010a). 

Early research among CIH families in the pilot schemes revealed how parents used online networking to find virtual support  for them and their families (Craig, 2001).  Instruction in the use of chat sessions and interacting with online support groups was not included in the training provided to participants, but they discovered such tools in playing around on the internet at home and shared them very quickly among the families.  Virtual community became a powerful tool for these parents.  Social circumstances in these communities made it difficult to maintain face-to-face support networks, especially crime, and cultural factors such as women not venturing out unaccompanied were some of the barriers to the formation of local support groups.  Mothers in local communities formed closed chat rooms so that they could connect up in the evenings and share stories about their children, their progress at school, and how other parents dealt with problems.  Others joined spiritual networks, various health-related support groups and indigenous rights groups.  Early participants used forms of text based digital applications such as chat rooms to communicate and interact with others inside and outside of their local community.  The newest online genre of everyday interaction, blogs (Hookway, 2008), has been credited with the power to bring about social change as a new genre of participatory journalism  (Morozov, 2009) and being able to create new forms of community.  Most recently this has been demonstrated in the discussion of the role of social media in reporting on the New Zealand and Japanese earthquakes as they happened and by those who witnessed the events and with the role of such media in current citizen protest movements in the Middle East (Coll, 2011).

Social media such as blogs are appearing to transform information exchange among internet users (Morozov, 2009).  It makes the creation and posting of content possible (Bruns, 2007) that has been generated by the individual internet user in a participatory and collaborative way.  Personal multimedia content can be posted to a blog or wiki or collaborative Web 2.0 project on a site accessible to a selected group of users who can add their own content (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010).  Thus the possibilities for CIH participants to share and interact through social media go well beyond what could be communicated and accomplished in the earlier chat room text-based exchanges, and provide another means of cementing community cohesion, and sustaining connections made at face-to-face community events such as meetings and celebrations that bring families together.

Research informing practice in Computers in Homes

The CIH research approach has been revisited over the years to try out different strategies to address two important questions about conducting research within a framework of transformative praxis.  First the question of the  relationship between the outside researcher and the inside practitioner, of  how to deal with the very real of issues of power and positioning given the differences in background and communities of origin of  the researcher and the researched.  What role should the researcher play in the transformation of the community of the 'other'?  Second, what kind of 'research capabilities' (Hurtig, 2008) can be handed over to participants, through the research process and perhaps also through participatory education, so that they can better understand and change their lived conditions?  In the early years of the project researchers sought to deal with these issues through collaborative engagement with participants. In practice this took the form of building rapport through conversations and interviews, and adapting the scheme to better meet local needs.  Ten years on, the project is experimenting with putting the tools of social media, in particular blogs, into the hands of the participants to capture their own stories as a new way of recording lived experiences and constructing new identity and community.  CIH research has all along focused on utilising methods that would empower the participants to imagine new possibilities for themselves and their communities.  We now turn to a review of the ways in which research and practice have intersected over the course of more than a decade of CIH implementation.

A participatory action research model: The early pilot projects

The approach taken in the early years of the project was adapted from a participatory action research framework, with each data collection phase informing the next cycle of project development (Stillman, 2005; Stoecker, 2005).  Evaluation approaches and methods had to be flexible and adaptable (Morell, 2010) and responsive to the local community as well as appropriate to the local context (Bishop, 1996; Smith, 1999).  Research also needed to direct the ongoing development of the project as well as inform the 2020 Trust (2020 Communications Trust, 2002) about participant perspectives on the role of ICTs in community development.  The core operating principle of the 2020 Communications Trust is that it will not work with any group on any ICT intervention unless there is a local champion who 'initiates' the approach to the Trust and progresses the project locally.  Finally, research was a means of reporting to funding bodies on the outcomes for both participants and the community (Craig, 2010).

At the beginning of CIH in 2000 the research approach was participatory, based on intensive interviews conducted in participants' homes to gather data on the experiences of families with the internet and a home computer.  These stories were told to the researchers, transcribed and analysed.  More informal feedback came through issues raised or ideas shared by participants in emails, at training and meetings, or impromptu speeches made at graduation ceremonies.  Researchers attended as many informal community gatherings as possible and took field notes to record such conversations that were project-related. Through such stories and feedback from the participants the scheme started to take the form known as Computers in Homes today. From the outset the intent was to work at the grassroots level in further shaping of the project to fit it to local needs, to have it owned by the community and responsive to local cultural and indigenous concerns.

One university researcher (with an educational and ethnographic research background) and the 2020 Communications Trust Chairperson  (with an educational background and years of classroom teaching) jointly conducted the research in the two initial pilot communities of Cannons Creek and Panmure Bridge (2020 Communications Trust, 2002).  Participants were interviewed in their homes at the time of registering interest in the programme, at the end of the ten weeks training and one year later at which time they had had access to a computer and internet in the home for 18 months.  The researchers organised the regular participant meetings at the school that they recorded and monitored as focus group discussions.  The school principal kept a record of e-mail communications between family and school as well as a database of pre- and post-achievement scores of the children from the participating families.

Feedback from participants through this participatory research process did help modify the programme to fit the community.  Many recounted very similar negative experiences of their own schooling that still trouble them today with the result that they are reluctant to go through any school gate as adults or as parents.  Early interviews with the principals of these two pilot schools revealed that their hoped-for outcomes from this project were increased home-school communication (through e-mail) and greater participation by the parents in the wider life of the school, which would in turn benefit the children's learning.  Getting the participants through the school gates was achieved by holding project meetings in the school in a relaxed environment with shared food and a babysitter provided for the children.  The training also took place in the school in a designated training suite funded by CIH that would remain available to the community beyond the project term.  Both the content and the measured pace of training took cognisance of the fear many participants had about any classroom experience.

A key theme that emerged from the interviews with parents at the end of the project was the confidence they had gained as learners.  Poor adult literacy skills precluded many parents of the children at school from taking part in their children's education and in events in their immediate community.  Literacy was as much a barrier to full participation in the social and economic benefits of life in these communities as was the lack of access and skills to use a computer and the internet.   Addressing this literacy problem also led to the development of an online adult literacy training programme delivered in the home with a tutor and completing online homework tasks (Craig, 2004).  Learning online, at home and working from a screen was the crucial motivating factor for these learners to complete this literacy course.  From these first families a key outcome was an understanding of the close relationship between digital literacy (learning to use a computer) and literacy, and that a home computer could motivate adults to improve their basic literacy skills.  This has since been borne out by a New Zealand report[3]that explores a range of factors associated with English literacy and numeracy among people aged 25-65 (Lane, 2010) which finds that computer use was strongly associated with higher literacy and numeracy, especially with intensive and extensive reading, writing and numeracy practices (ibid.). Home computer use is associated with greater involvement in personal literacy activities (ibid.).

Feedback from these first CIH participants about their experiences and their dreams for their futures provided the blueprint for the CIH scheme that has been continually reassessed, given the way other communities over the years such as the Tuhoe and Flaxmere groups have engaged with the concept.  It also helped shape the research agenda, suggesting social, educational and economic outcomes to measure.

Participatory research and community action

The gulf between the academic research world and its perspectives and the experiences of the participants was great.  Participatory research traditionally has employed interviewing techniques to break down the power inequalities between interviewer and interviewee.  Most often researchers are advised to develop trust and rapport by building on shared experiences and revealing personal details (Lyons & Chipperfield, 2000).  Participants seemed reluctant to pick up on the interviewer's attempts to find some shared experiences (such as parenting) as a starting point for dialogue or conversation.  Reflecting on the complex network of social relations in which both researcher and researched were positioned, this reluctance seemed to be related to a lack of confidence.  Many of the participants worried that they were simply not up with the play, that they would not be able to keep up  with the pace of learning in the training sessions and would not be able to use the computer on their own at home.  In the early encounters between researcher and the researched, participants were more intent on getting assistance with basics such as housing and overdue bills than engaging in reflective interviews.  It was clear that participants saw the researchers as professional and from mainstream culture, as having social capital connections (Pigg & Crank, 2004) and useful contacts in the world outside, and the interview an opportunity for the participant to pick up advice or information or get help with some technical issue with the computer or internet connection.

The participatory research model is, at its core, concerned with equipping marginalised or 'excluded' groups in our communities with research capabilities and understandings that they can use to transform their own lives (Hurtig, 2008).  Its philosophical stand is that social transformation at the community level comes about as local people get involved in participatory education and thereby learn new critical practices that help them organise for change and achieve the power to take control of their everyday situations, a mobilisation capacity that was found among a group of CIH parents in 2003 – 2005 longitudinal case study research (Williams, 2009).   CIH as a non-traditional or informal education scheme has been developed within such a transformative framework.  The researchers have drawn on the Paolo Freire pedagogical model for cultural transformation (1970), in particular his concept of participatory education as 'dialogue' or a conversation with learners and the premise that learning starts with the 'lived experience' of participants.  The project is also founded on Freire's concept of 'praxis', dialogue between the researcher and practitioner that leads to action or change.  Praxis is a way of building community and social capital and acting in ways that promote social justice.

It took time for the researchers to 'connect' with the community, and consequently for the participants to see that taking part in research could be a reflective learning experience for them. The researchers learned that the adoption of this project by individual participants was not something that they could take for granted.  People are not passive recipients of new innovations (Greenhalgh, Robert, McFarlane, Bate, & Kyriakidou, 2004, p. 598).   They either find, or fail to find, meaning in them, and develop positive or negative feelings about them.  The sharing of stories at CIH family meetings was the most powerful means of convincing participants that they could benefit from the project, that they could use internet banking, that they could support each other through chat or e-mail and other such discoveries.

Narratives have been very powerful persuasive tools to communicate the project to the wider NZ audience.  Providing a means for participants to share experiences is still, ten years on, key to any successful CIH project and hence our interest in exploring the potential of social media  such as blogs or social networking to engage families in making sense of their experience.

Collaborative participatory research: 'The Tuhoe CIH'

Given the history of exploitation of indigenous peoples across the Pacific through past colonising research practices, partnering with an indigenous Maori community put the issue of power imbalances between the researcher and the researched to the fore in establishing CIH in this community.  'The Tuhoe CIH' was the first community-initiated project led by a tribal entity, the Tuhoe Education Authority (TEA).  In order to work effectively with the TEA it was important that the 2020 Communications Trust understood the nature of the partnership between the TEA and the national Ministry of Education. This partnership gave the TEA authority to govern all Tuhoe schools as a cluster, finding solutions to issues with Tuhoe learners that the Ministry on its own could not.  The TEA sought a similar relationship with the 2020 Communications Trust, whereby it would take on both ownership of the project and the responsibility to put research findings into practice.

Building on the research that revealed not only improved whanau (family) engagement with the schools, but economic and educational benefits for the adults in these communities (Craig, 2004), the TEA incorporated CIH as a scheme into a broader strategy where the entire Tuhoe region (including schools, homes and businesses) connected through a broadband and videoconferencing infrastructure.  Today the 2020 Communications Trust is recognised for sowing the seeds of this transformation, but ownership lies firmly with the local iwi.  The resulting secure Tuhoe Digital Gateway connects tribal members so that all Tuhoe can be engaged in local decision-making and that knowledge can be better shared.  A key underlying principle is kaitiakitanga, in which there is 'guardianship, protection, care and vigilance of data about Maori that is collected, stored and accessed' (Kamira, 2007).  In response to loss caused by European domination of their culture and history in the past, Tuhoe appropriate digital technologies now for cultural protection and production, such as in a site for Tuhoe Stories and Interviews.

Measuring social cohesion: Urban mixed method case studies

At some distance to the north of the Children of the Mist, 'the Tuhoe CIH', research was being conducted in two CIH communities in the suburbs of New Zealand's largest city, Auckland, from 2003 - 2005.  The study looked to assess the role played by social cohesion in two communities and how this might relate to the sustainability of internet use among new users.  While the overall approach was qualitative in these case studies (Williams, 2009), the research goal - to assess how internet access and social cohesion are related in a free home internet scheme - required a combination of methods.  Internet use by CIH participants over time, assessed using a survey, would be analysed together with various manifestations of social cohesion such as community involvement, volunteerism, evidence of solidarity, and others.  This methodology was planned to generate a range of types of data, and to permit dialogue between them so that conclusions could be drawn about social conditions that appear to be conducive to successful community internet.

In-depth interviews between the researcher and adult CIH participants thus also included survey questions relating to a quantitative Internet Connectedness Index (ICI). The ICI is a multi-dimensional snapshot of people's relationship with the internet[4], modelled on an index created for the Metamorphosis project in Los Angeles (Ball-Rokeach et al., n.d.).  Described as a "...qualitative conceptualization ... taking into consideration the breadth, depth, and the importance of individuals' internet experience" (Jung, Kim, Lin, & Cheong, 2005, p. 64), the ICI provides a numerical measure of an individual's relationship with the internet over time.

The other key dimension, social cohesion, was assessed in these two cases at both individual participant level and at group level, from a variety of data using a detailed framework of eight characteristics that the literature agrees are features of a cohesive group (Williams, 2010a).  These include whether or not people worked outside the home or did voluntary work, their intention to stay in the neighbourhood, the number of neighbours people knew by name, local social networks they felt they could rely on, and many more drawn from an extensive review of the literature.  Results showed social cohesion was evidently stronger in one community (Case A) at the beginning of the research than in the other (Case B), and that this difference was sustained over time; and importantly, internet use was sustained by more participants in Case A than in Case B over the 2 year period of the research.  It is possible to infer here that a more cohesive community setting is related to more successful internet uptake, conclusions linked to specific features found in Case A (Williams, 2009) such as the participants there being more networked in their real-world neighbourhood, and a group among them mobilising to ensure the free internet scheme continued.  Other features of social cohesion at Case A included peer mentoring support, leadership by more confident users and knowledge sharing among the group (ibid., p. 233-234).

This is potentially a most useful series of findings relating to the social networking dimension of CIH as a community informatics model.  For example they imply that facilitation of social media use by regional CIH coordinators (who have regular contact with all the communities of users) to take the social relationships dimension to another level, is on the right track.  What becomes a refrain in CIH research and practice is the role played by social support in the new internet user context, support that helps ensure "the diffusion of innovations is essentially a social process consisting of people talking to others" (Backer & Rogers, 1998, p. 17).  CIH provides many opportunities for talking, especially in real world face to face settings such as at training sessions, parent meetings and in peer mentoring relationships.  The case study findings above underscore the potential for social cohesion, generated by dialogue among a group of CIH participants, to support their ongoing internet use.  The findings thus also point toward consideration of Web 2.0 tools - social networking sites and blogs - as additional means of building and maintaining group cohesion.

Research tensions: Informing practice and policy

CIH research has a three-pronged mandate: informing practice and being responsive to each local community; directing the ongoing development of the project nationally by informing the 2020 Communications Trust; and reporting to funders and policymakers on key pre-determined outcomes.  The researchers have sought in the research design to provide the most meaningful data to those engaged in the day-to-day project activities at the community level as well as to satisfy the funders and policy officials with an investment in the economic and social benefits of the scheme.  There have been tensions between community storytelling or qualitative reporting and the collection of quantitative 'brute' data such as statistical measures of change in employment or education status of participants over time.  These tensions manifest themselves most openly at the community level in the process of data collection. Participants willingly share stories of their personal experiences of the project, at celebrations or meetings, or more formally recorded research narratives.  However participants do struggle to complete survey questionnaires, hampered perhaps by literacy or language barriers, but more often querying the relevance of some of the questions posed by funders trying to tease out core economic benefits of engagement in the project. These tensions have been a valuable source of information to the researchers, accentuating the differences between what the participants value in the project and what their priorities are for their families and the community and the objectives set out by government (the core funder) for such social interventions.  This reinforces our argument that we consider it likely that if ownership of community storytelling can be truly in the hands of CIH participants themselves through creating and publishing their own stories digitally, then sustainability of outcomes will be even more enduring. The use of social media in this way may challenge more traditional ideas about community ICT research.

The researchers (and authors of this paper) approach these communities with differing theoretical and methodological perspectives, those of communication studies and education. While each author has built theoretical models originating in different disciplines and published to a variety of audiences, they share an overall goal of contributing to community informatics research and practice to promote social justice.  While the research instruments and datasets may differ, the questions guiding analysis and interpretation are in essence the same.

Both researchers combine qualitative and quantitative research strategies in their research designs. The in depth case studies in two Auckland communities discussed in the preceding section illustrate a mixed methods approach blending quantitative and qualitative material that generated complex data tracing both internet connectedness and social cohesion in the researched communities (Williams, 2009).  These rich studies approached from a communication studies framework also informed aspects of CIH project implementation such as clarifying responsibility for project management so that external agendas would not stifle local ownership, and affirming the importance of existing social networks in enhancing sustainability of internet use and potentially driving further social cohesion.

The early CIH pilot projects (Cannons Creek and Panmure Bridge) were concerned with education outcomes.  The mixed methods approach in these case studies documented  pre- and post-educational  statistical outcomes (literacy and numeracy scores) for the children of families participating in the project and other quantitative measures such as changes in absenteeism, truancy and patterns of parent contact with the school alongside rich, intensive, multiple interviews over several months with the children's caregivers about their experiences of living with an internet-enabled computer in their home recording the adult learning experiences. The CIH model of building community around the school is grounded in this very early research, as it indicated how such a scheme can help children's learning by giving parents the skills and digital means to support their children and also that many parents make use of that home internet connection to go further with their own learning and seek new employment opportunities.

This interdisciplinary research over the years has therefore informed the implementation of the CIH model at the national level driven by the 2020 Communications Trust.  Funding for the scheme has also been tied to research evidence.  The small-scale early pilots were heavily reliant on community contributions and volunteers with minimal short-term funding from a number of interested government agencies such as education and economic development. Instruments developed over these ten years to measure economic and social benefits at the community level have in the last year (2010) produced sufficient evidence to guarantee ongoing annual funding for CIH at the Cabinet level involving multiple government agencies.  Additionally the Ministry of Education funds a separate CIH programme for refugee families as they settle into New Zealand communities.  The 2020 Trust may be able to achieve its goal of connecting the homes of every New Zealand family with school-aged children but the funding demands a more sophisticated research design to better capture longitudinal data.

CIH research today:  Community ownership and social media

With more than 6,000 families participating today it is no longer feasible in terms of time and travel for researchers to spend time in every community of every region conducting intensive one-on-one interviews. CIH now today operates out of a national 2020 Trust office located in the capital city of Wellington, adjacent to central government, business and education.  This office is staffed with a part-time administrative assistant and a full-time CIH National Coordinator who supports the regions and their projects as well as the Refugee CIH.  A team of 18 part-time regional coordinators and technicians are backed by local steering committees which manage the local projects.  Regional coordinators come together four times a year with the national office staff and researchers to coordinate and plan.

Toward the end of the last decade, the CIH coordinating group made the pragmatic decision that the national office would restrict its research responsibility to the collection of quantitative survey data (online pre- and post- measures of social and economic benefits) for government, policy reporting and lobbying purposes, while requesting that regional coordinators capture those rich research narratives at the community level. A challenge for the researchers at the national level is getting accurate and complete responses from community participants to online forms.  Regional coordinators and local trainers assist with the administration of the online surveys as part of training in the Community Technology Centre (CTC) facility at the school or when participants come together for a project meeting.

In order to collect these narratives, the CIH team began to employ social media, specifically blogs, which not only permit communities to tell their own stories rather than a researcher doing so, but also invite the expression of identity and culture.  It is at the community level that the project is exploring the use of blogs as a research tool.  Regional coordinators have attended workshops on community-based research (Stoecker, 2005), specifically learning narrative interview techniques and exploring how, as researchers, they might use these local stories in community-based project development.  Each coordinator is responsible for their regional blog and its content.  The layout and visual design varies, but each of the twenty-one sites document progress in the project with visual images, videos and stories that may be authored or produced by any of the community participants.  These regional blogs may be accessed through the CIH website.   Community development is now the responsibility of those in the local community. The Tuhoe CIH sits as a model of how the community can take ownership of this scheme.

A next-stage study is also in progress aiming to build on the 2003 – 2005 social cohesion studies (Williams, 2009) through research that evolves in partnership with the school to foster social media use.  Thirty-one families from an urban primary school in Avondale, Auckland, completed their CIH training and started their home internet use in July 2011.  The researcher is liaising with the "IT Lead Teacher" (chiefly responsible for the CIH group), the school Principal, and the group of 31 families, to develop ways of documenting their experiences that suit the parents and the school.  Collaborative research may assist in guiding progress toward the Principal's key objective of fostering family connectedness with the school through CIH which she sees as an opportunity for home-school partnership.  The community itself provides the impetus, with the "research" comprising the sharing of knowledge (such as different ways to use an online community) among the teacher, parents, mentors, helpers and "the researcher", and ultimately shared experiences such as interviews or journals or other outcomes are being created together.   Positive signs of a sound basis for further home-school connectedness, as desired by the Principal, are present: high attendance at the training sessions, close supervision and mentoring both by volunteers and the parents amongst themselves, as well as relaxed socialising in the school staffroom have all laid the groundwork for a feeling of belonging to the group and "the school family", a metaphor used by the Principal in talking with parents.  Social media may now provide further ties that bind in this learning community.

Conclusions and future directions

We have shown in this paper that community informatics research tracing the outcomes of CIH in New Zealand has been intrinsic to its evolution.  In the early years of implementation, participatory research by one of the authors (Craig, 2001) yielded focus group notes and stories from interviews that were transcribed and analysed.  These forms of data were instrumental to the conduct and overall success of the scheme in the early years (Craig, 2004), being tailored to the requirements of the 2020 Communications Trust and its goal of being responsive to the needs of local community groups, as well as informing improvements to CIH implementation. The two urban mixed method case studies in the mid-2000s combined qualitative interviews with a quantitative measure of social cohesion and internet connectedness in order to understand the relationship between community support and the uptake of the internet (Williams, 2009). These indepth studies have informed other facets of CIH project implementation, in particular the critical role of real world connections and mentoring relationships in successful projects.

These are important lessons for future implementation; we maintain that now is the time to make real grassroots ownership of the research through putting the community storytelling into the hands of CIH participants themselves. These regional stories can apprise those  project personnel on the ground how to act on local values, needs and issues. Thus research and practice have intersected for some years in Computers in Homes in order to enhance its effectiveness, and will continue to do so as both academic researchers and community practitioners work to harness new media to further inquire into socially just outcomes in our communities.


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[1]  Computers in Homes operates in low-income communities and in refugee communities.  Specific details of the regions where there are active projects as well as information about early community sites can be found at

[2]  New Zealand schools are assigned a Decile ranking from 1 to 10, calculated from census statistics on income, occupation, household crowding, education and on income support (Ministry of Education, 2008, 'Deciles information' section).  CIH works predominantly with the most economically disadvantaged 10% of communities ranked Decile 1.

[3]  A significant new finding is that computer use is strongly associated with higher literacy and numeracy, especially the combination of work and home computer use (Lane, 2010).  Computer use is particularly prevalent in managerial, professional, technical and clerical occupations, is associated with intensive and extensive literacy and numeracy practices, and is associated with involvement in ongoing education and/or training. Work computer use or non-use divides jobs broadly into those that require higher literacy and numeracy and those that don't. Home computer use is associated with greater involvement in personal literacy activities (ibid.). Thus a large overlap exists between the groups of people with low literacy and low numeracy, and the group of people who do not use a computer at work.

[4]  The Metamorphosis ICI, ranging from 1 (the lowest internet connectedness) to 12 (the highest internet connectedness), is made up of eleven items.  These are: evaluation of the internet; how much would one miss the computer when absent; how much would one miss the internet when absent; time spent online; history of home computer use; time spent on online activities; scope of goals in internet use; scope of online activities; scope of places of internet use; scope of computer use; scope of email use.  The version of the Metamorphosis ICI used for the CIH case studies was made up of eight items, omitting the items 'scope of email use' and 'scope of PC use', and combining the two separate technology dependency questions into one.

The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441