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Breaking down the barriers

When I suggested to the editor that it was time for me to take a break we discussed the changes since I started writing a column. Then, I was carting aubergines up and down a rusty ladder to ferry them to the next island for a cookery class, but gradually I became more involved in assisting learners using technology.

The letter inviting me to contribute suggested that I might like to use my "new fax machine". It was the first on Papa Westray, and very few contributors sent their copy through to Edinburgh in such a high-tech format. It doesn't bear mentioning that it all had to be retyped at the other end before it could be used. As time went on, we remote folk in the north became the guinea-pigs for this and other newspapers, modeming our copy through, and now e-mailing it.

No one expected us to have much in the way of technology, although we were the obvious best beneficiaries of it. We were always surprised at the questions put by visitors. "Do you have a telly?" was a regular one. When they learnt we also had modems, debated ISDN and used e-mail they could only put us down as oddities. Meanwhile, rural schools and voluntary organisations put their hearts into these new technical possibilities. Many early attempts failed, and others were faulty, but what they did have in common was a commitment to learners, and a growing development of methodology. As time went on, there were local and regional conferences where demonstrations were provided of some of the strange educational possibilities that being high-tech might bring.

Those who were hauled out to take that ultimate risk, of providing live link-ups with remote students, became used to being treated as freaks. Treble freaks if you like; rural and techie, and often teachers, too. And as the move to on-line learning became more fashionable, or more acceptable, or perhaps just more cost-effective, others began to get involved. Some had real vision. Others telephoned from southern ivory towers and enquired whether the rumours they had heard of what Scottish remote schools were up to were true, and, if so, could the underlying methodologies save money for higher education?

No one should doubt the impact to learning that large educational establishments can make by supplying their courses in a range of styles. However, there are two underlying worries. The first is, how do we make sure that what is supplied is what the learner wants andor needs, and not merely another sales route for an existing course? Indeed, how can the prospective learner or community affect or influence the range of courses and learning support available? As the supplier of education can become more distant, then the opportunities for a few folk to identify a learning need and have it tailored just for them starts to be whittled down.

Second, there is the potential contribution, albeit often ignored, of our old rural techies. These are the people who work on the ground, with students, who know what has been tried and what the results are. The contribution that their experiences could make is significant, although they are seldom invited to assist prestigious establishments in making the move to on-line delivery and support. And the main barrier here is the varying levels of prestige that pertain to different sectors of education. How can we expect education and business to work together if different sectors of education can't collaborate? There should be better two-way links between higher education and primary schools, for example, where each can learn from the other.

I have great hopes for the University of the Highlands and Islands and was delighted to accept an invitation to contribute to an educational technology seminar. It seems to complete the circle. I'll share what I know of unreliable island phone lines and terrified users, and hope to integrate that with their understanding of HE funding and course development. So I'll vacate this space for my successor, not knowing whether he or she is also an old rural techie, and wish you all well. Thanks.

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