The community awakenings

The Scottish Executive's vision to help two disadvantaged areas - one urban, one rural - by providing households with computers has sparked their interest in the digital age. Douglas Blane reports

When the Scottish Executive announced that it was going to donate a new computer to every household on a run-down Dumbarton estate where there is high unemployment and few amenities, the first reaction was widespread disbelief.

"Even after our residents had been told officially," says Harry Mulvenna, headteacher at St Peter's Primary in Bellsmyre, "a lot of them didn't believe it. They were convinced it was a hoax."

It was no hoax, however, simply part of a visionary initiative to create digital communities in two disadvantaged areas of Scotland - one urban, the other rural - by not only delivering state-of-the-art personal computers to 4,000 households, but also providing training for the residents and free Internet access for a year.

The package sounded so attractive to local authorities that no fewer than 29 submitted proposals to the Executive for a share of the pound;3.5 million on offer. But there could be only two successful bids, so it was perhaps no surprise that when Bellsmyre and a group of islands in North Argyll were announced as winners, the second reaction was hostility.

"The newspaper reports were very negative," says Susan Carragher, West Dunbartonshire's manager of lifelong learning. "They went on and on about how stupid the idea was in an area like this and how the computers would just get broken or sold to pay for drink or drugs."

"We have already installed PCs in 400 houses," says project manager Bob McDonald, "and you can bet that these journalists have been asking around. If they had found even one computer for sale the story would have been on all their front pages."

At the heart of Bellsmyre's vision lie its two primary schools, Aitkenbar and St Peter's. In an area with few public amenities, the vital role these play as centres of community life is about to be greatly enhanced as they develop as hubs of the digital community.

Both schools will be equipped with a suite of computers for training local residents in computer skills and accessing the Internet. To some extent this is an extension of adult education courses already run by the schools, the difference being that adults will now be around during the day at the same time as the children. The safety concerns this raises will have to be addressed before the classes begin but neither school believes they are an intractable problem.

Lesley Robertson, headteacher at Aitkenbar Primary, says: "There is no suggestion that we will become drop-in centres. The training will be strictly controlled. Places on the course will be booked in advance, learning will always be supervised and classes will be scheduled only for specific days and times."

Both headteachers are keen to talk about the benefits the digital communities initiative will bring to Bellsmyre and its schools. The material aspects are obvious: 10 state-of-the-art PCs will not only be available for pupils and teachers outwith adult learning sessions but also will remain in the schools after the nominal one-year duration of the project.

The wider, less tangible benefits that will flow from a reawakened community spirit are even more significant, says Ms Robertson. "It's not just paid officials who are getting things done. The project is uncovering people in the community who have skills they are willing to share."

"There is no doubting the enthusiasm," agrees Mr Mulvenna. "Open meetings to discuss major issues sometimes used to get half a dozen people, but we had a meeting in May to talk about this project and you could hardly move in the hall."

The digital communities initiative is a central component in the Scottish Executive's strategy for eradicating what it calls the "digital divide", which it says is closely related to poverty, lack of awareness and low skill levels. Digital Inclusion 2001 says: "The groups most affected by the digital divide are those which are already most excluded within society."

However, there is another digital divide: between children and adults. Children from deprived backgrounds may have less access to information and communications technology than their peers from wealthier areas, but they generally have more access than their parents. As a result, even the youngest tend to have far less fear of computers and better developed skills than adults in their families. How this divide changes could be crucial to the success or failure of the digital communities initiative.

There are two aspects to this: the first is parental involvement in children's learning, which is now established as a predictor of attainment. The second is the flow of knowledge, which traditionally is from old to young but reversal of the direction should be accepted.

Many parents have neither the resources nor the education to help their children, so ideally educational software used in schools would also be available at home, enabling parents to get involved in homework that was a continuation of classwork accessed through the Internet.

The educational potential of this is so great that it has to be a long-term goal, even though there may be short-term problems over the availability of some expensive software, says Ms Robertson.

A group of Bellsmyre primary pupils who have gathered to talk about the initiative suggest the main reason for the adult-child digital divide is that children nowadays learn about computers in school and their parents didn't.

"I don't think there were any computers when they went to school," says Nicola.

The youngsters are in no doubt that the tutorial sessions planned by the council will not turn the adults they know into computer whiz-kids overnight. "My Mum works with computers so she's OK," says Kimberley, "but my Dad is going on the course because he doesn't know how to turn a computer on."

The children have mixed feelings about the prospect of being mentors to family members who are learning to use the computers. The consensus is that while teaching can be a boring and thankless task - "You have to tell grown-ups the same thing over and over" - the majority are willing to do it because no one else is in a position to do the job as effectively.

Other educational aspects of the initiative in Bellsmyre are the use of the computers to support chronically absent pupils by adapting learning packages used in schools and the provision of computer access to the virtual learning environment set up by the local further education colleges. Plans to develop a citizenship course in collaboration with Learning and Teaching Scotland are also well advanced. Delivered through the personal and social education curriculum in the secondary schools attended by Bellsmyre children, the course will help the pupils to become peer-tutors at school and technology mentors at home.

A sensible time to decide if the project has been a success is after its first year, says Ms Carragher.

"I don't think it is idealistic to expect all those things to happen in a community like this," she says. "There is a palpable sense of excitement around the place.

"Just winning the bid has given Bellsmyre a buzz and raised self-esteem all round. The interest has been phenomenal. When we kitted out a mobile information point, people were queuing up all day."

"At the steering group meeting last night," adds Mr McDonald, "there were discussions about how we can help other communities once ours is up and running. We could sell our skills or work as volunteers to help others achieve similar objectives.

"Community spirit has been lifted already in Bellsmyre and I expect it to rise even more as folk work together to achieve something they all believe in."

INDICATORS OF BELLMYRE'S SUCCESS

The digital communities project will be deemed a success in Bellsmyre if by the end of 12 months:

* a large proportion of residents have retained their PCs and found some way to continue having Internet access,

* a web portal has been created with community websites that are vibrant, active and growing,

* the virtual community of interest is reflected in real life, both at the community hubs - the primary schools - and beyond,

* there has been a fall in youth crime and reported vandalism because youngsters are engaged in something that interests them,

* there has been an increase in partner investment in Bellsmyre through virtual services, such as careers or employment, for which there is currently no provision, and

* growing numbers of local residents are building on their information and communication technology skills to start up businesses, find employment or enrol in educational courses.

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