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Bridge over the digital divide

George Cole reports on plans to close the gap between the computer haves and have-nots.

A major campaign to bridge the digital divide between school students with a computer and internet access at home and those without is being launched this month. The campaign, Equal Opportunities in IT for Young People (Equity), is being spearheaded by the e-Learning Foundation, a charity which aims to increase access to ICT in education, with support from the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa), National College for School Leadership (NCSL), the Specialist Schools Trust and The Times Educational Supplement.

The Equity campaign also aims to help schools maximise the effectiveness of the pound;50 million pledged by Chancellor Gordon Brown in the last budget to help poorer households gain access to computers.

Valerie Thompson, the e-Learning Foundation's chief executive, says the problem of unequal access is getting worse rather than better. "This isn't like not having any books at home. We now have new ways of learning in education where children are required to go online for resources. You've got e-learning, and VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) and MLEs (Managed Learning Environments) that are designed to be accessed from home. Children without a computer and internet access at home are simply given a worksheet instead - that's a big disadvantage." Thompson adds that it is an issue that is concerning many teachers. "Teachers are feeling uncomfortable about these differences and there's a crisis developing."

The e-Learning Foundation quotes from a BT survey which suggests that more than two million children, or one in ten school pupils, don't have a computer and internet access at home. What is more, the vast majority of these children are from disadvantaged homes. "These children are losing out in the education system already, and the gap between the high-income and low-income homes is widening, not narrowing," adds Thompson. "The ironic thing is that a vast amount of money has been pumped into ICT and education and it's actually disadvantaging many children. I know the DfES is concerned about this."

The e-Learning Foundation has more than 100 schools linked to it and the charity hopes to increase this number as a result of the Equity campaign. A new website will be launched and, under the scheme, schools will be able to register online as digital divide campaigners by answering a handful of questions about their attitude and policy towards the divide. The hope is that other organisations, such as educational technology suppliers and manufacturers, will also sign up to the campaign - although they will need to offer something to be accepted.

Equity will be launched at the e-Learning Foundation's autumn conference, held in London on September 29, and there will be a big presence at major educational conferences, and shows like the BETT technology show in London in January, 2006.

"We know that schools are aware of the problem, but I'm not sure that many are addressing the issue. So what we want to do with the Equity campaign is to explain what they can do to narrow the gap," explains Thompson. This could include loaning or leasing computers, getting sponsorship from local businesses, raising funds through a variety of activities and more. Some schools run after-hours clubs or offer computer access in a library or learning centre, but while such moves are commendable, Thompson thinks they don't go far enough. "Someone once said that offering learning centres for home computing was the equivalent of using the launderette - we'd all rather do our washing at home. Ultimately, the aim must be to provide computers at home."

The launch of Equity comes at the start of the academic year in which the first tranche of the pound;50 million fund pledged by Chancellor Brown is relesed. The fund is aimed at giving the poorest households access to home computers, and is spread over two years, with the first pound;25 million being made available on April 1, 2006. The DfES is currently developing a scheme for distributing the money.

"If there are more than two million children without a computer and internet access at home, then pound;25 million is obviously just scratching the surface," says Valerie Thompson. "But it's a really important start."

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