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Access at home vital to progress

New research has found that the digital divide is a serious problem, reports Chris Johnston

Children from families that do not own computers are at a "significant disadvantage" and access to technology at school does not necessarily compensate for it a major research project has concluded.

The interdisciplinary Screen Play project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found that the home is a key site for access to computers and that children who do not have a home PC can be excluded from using them at school.

One of the researchers, Ruth Furlong of the University of Wales College, Newport, told a conference in Cardiff last month that this was due to pupils who had home computers being better experienced and dominating usage of school machines. The problem can be compounded by teachers choosing these pupils for computer-based tasks as they have a better knowledge of using machines.

Furlong said that if children did not have the confidence to use computers, they were unlikely to go into an IT class and develop their skills.

Neither is lack of home ownership compensated by access in friends' homes, according to the survey of 855 children in eight schools in four communities in south-west England and south Wales, as well as case studies of 16 families and group interviews with 46 low or ambivalent computer users.

Computer ownership was ighest among upper income families - 80 per cent - with ownership for lower income families at 53 per cent. Many parents wanted their children to have a computer, but often did not know what it should be used for.

Parental knowledge, interest and support are vital, said the survey, as homes without someone to offer help when computers go wrong often stopped activites. Also, some poorer families regarded computers as "revered objects" that could easily be damaged due to their expense.

In another presentation to the New Technologies and Learning in the Home conference, Rosamund Sutherland and Keri Facer (see page 14) of Bristol University said schools may be the only place where ICT inequalities in the home - the so-called "digital divide" - could be addressed.

This would only be achieved, they said, if schools gave pupils better and more open access to computers. Schools risk alienating young people if teachers continue to determine activities, give children no time for exploration, fail to celebrate their expertise and stress learning as the sole aim rather than a benefit.

Sutherland and Facer said policy makers needed to examine the influence of ICT co-ordinators on the culture of computer use in schools and determine the productive practices of home computer use that could be brought into schools.

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