Excellence award: IBM volunteer helps grow computer literacy in Germany

Uwe Doebler
Uwe Doebler has founded and led
a not-for-profit organization to teach
computer literacy of over 20 years,
which now reaches 850 children a week.
“We do this with our heart. We love this.
This is not a job,” he says.
People in long term relationships are often asked to share their secret; how have they stayed committed for so long? For Uwe Doebler, a team leader and telephony specialist with IBM in Germany, who still leads the not-for-profit organization he founded over 20 years ago, his revelation is rooted in the kind of honesty that solid relationships require: “It is a very difficult task,” he admits. “But it makes me happy and that is one reason to keep moving forward.”

Another compelling reason for his longstanding leadership of Kinder-Computerschule Arnstadt e.V., as his organization is formerly called, is the thousands of happy young students who have received their first lessons in using a computer thanks to Uwe and his team of volunteers.

“In the beginning, there was no special scope for Kinder-Computerschule,” says Uwe. “I was single, I had time, and I thought it was a good thing to do.”

Today, Kinder-Computerschule, or children’s computer school, provides experiential learning by having students perform activities on the computer that are aligned with their school curriculum. Using pre-installed software, like Microsoft Office, the students—five to 10 years old —use computers to solve tasks in the fields of mathematics, language, the sciences and more.

Build it and they will come

Uwe took inspiration from his sister who had been training adults in computer literacy. “The parents started asking if it was possible to also bring their children [to computer training],” recalls Uwe. “There weren’t many families with a computer at home at the time, so one afternoon we just gathered the interested children and that was the start; they started coming every week after that.”

Come they did. Based in the small city of Arnstadt, Kinder-Computerschule has grown from just 5 students in 1995 to more than 850 a week across the state of Thuringia in Germany.

Perhaps as a sign of the need throughout the state, Uwe says that he did nothing in particular to attract such large interest. “All we did was create the possibility for children to learn how to use the computer; having great engagement and deeply committed volunteers who invest almost all their free time makes it achievable.” Kinder-Computerschule, or “kico” as some students pronounce it for short, is open to children from pre-school to 6th grade.

Uwe points out that gaming on the computer would be easy, but not as beneficial as the emphasis his program places on productivity tasks that the students will need. One lesson might include opening a spreadsheet, formatting the cells, writing text, and importing pictures. Every year a “ComputerOlympiade” is held for the students to test their skills in a competition. He says Kinder-Computerschule’s objective is to develop skills and competencies that promote the computer as a natural resource.

Being essential, constantly needing to build capacity

As an IBMer who strives to be essential, Uwe is pleased that Kinder-Computerschule has become an essential part of the non-formal education system in Thuringia, which he says does not have a strong school infrastructure for teaching IT literacy.

However, in order to meet the growing need, Uwe and Kinder-Computerschule are constantly in the mode of capacity building—a term often applied to a not-for-profit’s activities to improve and enhance its ability to achieve its mission and sustainability.

For example, Uwe has had to solve how to best deliver computer lessons for his students. “It’s difficult for school aged children to travel to a single location for this education,” he says. The solution was to dispatch volunteers to the students’ location.

Up to seven teams of two to three volunteers each now travel every day to kindergartens and primary schools in several towns in the region to lead computer training. A complex schedule, born from strong project management experience, organizes volunteer assignments by town, by school, by day and by available vehicles. The organization has five cars, but could use more.

Also, most of their computers are more than 5 years old, and while productivity software does not necessarily need powerful computers it does need functioning computers—repairs are a constant.

And there are always costs. “We need money for everything—electricity, computers, paper, printer ink—and sponsorship from companies and the state government helps, but we don't want to ask families to pay much for our services,” Uwe says. Kinder-Computerschule asks parents to donate 1.40€ per hour for lessons.

Despite the challenges, Uwe says, “We do this with our heart. We love this. This is not a job.” He has had a chance to experience the long term impact of his volunteerism. “I’ve seen some of the children from the very beginning, and followed their progress over the years. Now, many are in good jobs at different companies—and that is what makes me the most happy and is the best reason to keep going.”

For his long-term dedication and volunteerism, Uwe Doebler received an IBM Volunteer Excellence award in 2014.

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