Caught in the net

Sean Coughlan

It wasn't all that long ago that the idea of educational institutions advertising seemed like material for a comedy sketch. But now it's far from unusual to be grazing the airwaves on your car radio and come across a local radio advert for a college or university, with an actorish voice extolling the benefits of courses and qualifications.

Further education colleges, pressured by competition for students and funding, have become particularly adept at the dark arts of profile-raising in their local community. As well as advertising everywhere from radio to the sides of buses, many colleges run promotional events for local businesses, open days for would-be students and a multitude of other marketing projects designed to bring the services available in colleges to a wider audience.

Even though the ideal of life-long education for all is widely promoted, in practice, actually getting people across the threshold of a college isn't that easy. An educational institution can appear a forbidding place, somewhere that you don't go without a specific invitation. This is particularly the case for out-of-town colleges, with few passers-by and a distinct lack of "pavement appeal".

An innovative initiative to draw local people into the life of a further education college is being tested in the west country, where Norton Radstock College, near Bath, has set up its own "Internet cafe". These techno-coffee bars, often known as "cyber-cafes", are springing up in cities across the country, letting people surf the froth of the Internet while sipping the froth off a cappuccino.

Since the beginning of the autumn term, Norton Radstock College has been inviting local people to call at its Internet cafe, open until 7pm on weekdays, where they can use the college's quick-access connections to the Internet in an atmosphere that is intended to reassure anyone suffering from new-technology angst. Located near the college reception, "Cafe Net", as it's known, looks much like any other cafe, except that it has as its centrepiece four machines linked to the Internet.

"The jargon surrounding the Internet can be intimidating," says cafe manager, Jo Dobson. "But we try to show people that it isn't about computers, it's about communicating." Visitors to the cafe, she says, range from parents interested in finding out more about the technnology that their children are using at school to local business people curious about the Internet. There have also been visits from women seeking to return to work after a break bringing up children, using the Internet for job hunting.

Without having to make an appointment, local people can come to the college to use the cafe. And once inside the college, says vice principal Shirley Arayan, they can discover more about the courses on offer. The cybercafe concept is also attractive in that in addition to being a voguish venue that can be used as a marketing tool, it can be used in a practical way by students. It's now part of the college's overall information technology services.

At present, groups of visitors are being invited to use the facilities for free. But if any individuals want to return and use the college's Internet connections, they are charged Pounds 1.50 for 30 minutes.

Appropriately enough, Norton Radstock College now has its own Internet site, where you can find more information about the services on offer.

Norton Radstock College: directory of further education college Internet sites is available from The TES's Internet site:

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Sean Coughlan

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