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College of Computing and Digital Media: Building Software Projects with Nonprofits

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DePaul students taking “Software Projects for Community Clients” help fill that gap by working with nonprofit organizations to build, rebuild, or improve their websites. Students benefit from the experience of solving a real-world problem for organizations that are working on critical issues, while nonprofits boost how they use essential communication tools. Students sign-up for two classes – one in the winter quarter and one in the spring. This winter and spring terms forty students are taking the class and are working on a total of eight projects. Along the way, students keep a journal in which they reflect on their experience and ethical issues related to accessing technology. This year, the course is taught by Terry Steinbach, Associate Professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM). 

Steinbach has considerable experience in meeting the technology needs of organizations. For fifteen years, she owned her own information technology consulting company in Chicago where she worked primarily in the financial and private sector. She taught part-time at DePaul– and earned four degrees from the university -- including a Ph.D. in computer science from CDM. After taking the professorship position at DePaul, Steinbach went on a Vincentian Heritage Tour for faculty and staff in France which, she notes “was fantastic -- and it strengthened my commitment to service learning.” 

Learning New Skills 

Students in the class, Steinbach says, use software applications that are new to them. “They learn it on their own,” she says. “That fits in with the idea that students should be lifelong learners.” The course doesn’t only require that students learn, develop and apply technical skills to improve an organization’s website, however​​​ It also gives them an opportunity to practice intercommunication skills. “How will they participate on a team? How will they listen?” she asks. “These skills, of course, are very important.” Steinbach says students in this class learn how nonprofits work and the challenges they face. “Generally, the people we work with in nonprofits wear so many hats in their organization. Because their budget goes to services they provide to the community, they don’t have the resources or time to do everything they want to do. They do good work – but it’s often on a shoestring.” Focus on Improving Websites Grace Canavan, a senior majoring in information systems, praises the real-world nature of the class – and her professor’s commitment to service learning. “You can tell this professor really cares – she really wants us to learn about things we’ll need to know after we graduate. We have to arrange meetings, work outside the classroom and take things into our own hands. Instead of writing a one-page homework assignment, we work with our client. It’s real experience.” Canavan is project manager for a team that includes four other students. One of her responsibilities is to manage communication between the client and the student team. Canavan and her team are working with First Defense Legal Aid, which runs a hotline and provides free legal services to anyone when they get arrested. “I am learning that not everything goes as planned,” Canavan says. “It’s a big eye-opener – this group is so busy, doing a million things at once.”

Through this organization, attorneys also go to police stations to interview clients – sometimes in the middle of the night. Students in the class are building a website for First Defense; the website will feature a volunteer database and a database to run analytics about the population the organization is serving. In addition, one of the team’s projects is to address the organization’s need to enhance its search engine optimization. “When someone types a phrase like ‘free attorney,’ you want this group to come up on the list,” says Canavan. Jessica Schreiber, staff attorney and executive director of First Defense Legal Aid, says that “Right now, we don’t have anyone in the office who handles information technology. To have DePaul students figure it out is such a blessing. A lot of the work we need done is not particularly complicated for someone who is studying it. To us, it’s a monumental task.” Schreiber says that it is “especially important that the organization improve how it quantifies the impact of its services.” “In order to staff a hotline of one hundred volunteer attorneys,” she adds, “we want to make the website accessible to them. Volunteers can use it to answer questions – and ask them. We also need to make the website more informative for funders. It’s important to provide content on new developments in the organization.” Ryan Quinn, a senior majoring in interactive media, is project manager with a team of students that is working with St. Joseph Services, an outreach ministry serving families and individuals at risk in Chicago’s Humboldt Park/West Town and Austin communities. He says of the class that “it is real-life experience mixed with service. It’s a unique opportunity – you are doing something that will go live.” Quinn suggests that there is an added benefit for students who take this class – they get real-world business experience by working to solve problems that impact an organization. “You take on the role of being your own organization, as if you were your own web design firm,” he says. Lisa Sullivan, executive director at St. Joseph Services, says the organization has worked with the Steans Center and students engaged in various service learning activities on numerous occasions - including students who were majoring in education, theology and accounting. “Student get hands-on experience from working with a nonprofit,” she says.

 “Overall, this project has provided a lot of positive interactions on both sides. I was also initially impressed by the questions students asked,” says Sullivan. Daniel Rosenberger, a senior majoring in information systems, was project manager for a project with the Coalition of Asian, Arab, African, European and Latino Immigrants (CAAAELI). The group is a parent organization for seventeen smaller organizations. “The biggest challenge they have is juggling information from all of these groups, including pre- and post-test information from immigrant efforts to learn civics, English and become citizens,” he says. “There’s just a world of information they need to collect.” The organization, says Rosenberger, has been using spreadsheets to update information, which has been increasingly difficult and time-consuming to track. “Our goal is to develop a web-based application to help make their work more streamlined, so they don’t have to spend as many hours staying up to date,” he says. “As for students, we want to take away the experience of a start-to-finish experience that has us ready for different experiences in the workplace.”

Rosenberger says he has learned something through this experience that can only result from working with others. “The more communication, the better,” he says. “It’s so important to get a strong understanding of what the organization you are working with is doing.” Students on these teams also train clients so they are able to make changes to their websites. “When we finish developing the site, we teach their staff how to use it,” says Quinn. Another benefit of the class for nonprofits is that once student complete it, nonprofits can access help from the university. “We are a very small organization, and we were assured that ongoing help would be available,” says Sullivan. “That’s very meaningful to us.”