With typical pre-election aplomb and fanfare, Patricia Hewitt, then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, announced last month that 99 per cent of the country would have access to home broadband "within weeks". The news coincided with BT revealing it had just signed up its 5 millionth broadband customer.
Great joy for politicians and phone company directors, but the headline figure masked a huge national disparity between those who use the zappy new technology and those who don't. Access to broadband isn't the same as having broadband. In February, eBay, an internet auction site, surprised many by revealing that over four in ten Norwich residents were registered with it - more than anywhere else in the country. Conversely, the same survey also showed that only 17 per cent of people living in Chelmsford, Essex, logged on to eBay.
"We still have people turning up who don't know how to use a mouse," says Robert Brock, an ICT co-ordinator at New College, Swindon. "They pick it up and start rubbing it against the monitor thinking that's the way to move the cursor."
Such widespread failure to embrace new technology has long been recognised as hindering both Britain's economic growth and its social development. A web-savvy population could use of the power of the internet not only to find cheap consumer deals but also to get involved more effectively in democracy. There are sites that allow you to scrutinise the record of your MP or let you vent your ire direct to his or her office from your keyboard*.
Two years ago, a White Paper** recognised this. Improving our technology-user skills would both help fill the 30 per cent productivity gap between the UK and France, it reckoned, and also bridge the divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" of the digital age. It declared that ICT was "the third basic skill" and that it would be recognised within the Government's Skills for Life strategy. Indeed, the White Paper argued, ICT has a tendency to motivate those who struggle with their basic skills.
Caroline Miller, head of adult learning at Newcastle City Council, agrees.
"People who would not admit to their failure to read or write have no problem saying they cannot use a computer," she says. "They might have a fear of books but an interest in computers. ICT is a great way for getting to those hard-to-reach parts."
With the White Paper came a plan to produce qualifications for ICT and a national curriculum from entry level 1 to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent). The standards were drawn up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). The first courses are to be run as pilots this September. According to the QCA, by the end of level 2, people should be able to design a website and make it go live, while householders should feel at home drawing up a spreadsheet to calculate loan repayments or scanning and cropping photos taken with a digital camera.
While some people may want to learn about ICT, many more just want to learn with it and take advantage of online resources during their German or yoga classes. Andrew Palmer, operations director at e-skills, the ICT sector skills council, says students hardly realise they are picking up technology skills as a by-product of their studies when things are working well . But if that's the case, will learners bother to take the new qualification?
"We get grandparents whose main aim is to learn how to send an email to their relatives far away," says Mr Brock. "They see the course as a social club and don't care about taking exams or getting qualifications. On the other hand, there will be people who, once they realise the qualification exists and they already have the skills, will think they might as well get it."
Alan Clarke, associate director for ICT and learning at Niace, believes in the new ICT-user skills programme. "There are three main reasons why people want to improve their skills," he says. "First, they want it for work, either to keep their current job or to get a better one; second, sheer curiosity about the web and what it can do for them. Finally, they want to be able to help their children with school work."
A consultation about the new qualification revealed that "very few practitioners, providers or managers were aware of the decision to make ICT a new skill for life". There was also considerable concern about its funding: technology was not going to get as much money as literacy and numeracy.
Others have fundamental doubts whether the Government is moving in the right direction. Stephen Heppell, the outgoing director of Ultralab, a learning technology research centre, believes the idea of boosting ICT skills to improve the economy is old hat. "I think the productivity model has run its course," he says. "ICT has already penetrated to a very high degree. Think about how you or your friends organised your last holiday. I bet the research was done on the internet and probably the flights were bought online too."
Professor Heppell believes jobs requiring basic ICT skills have already, by and large, gone overseas. He wants to see technology being used to spur learners' intellectual creativity.
"If you get people bringing out their ingenuity through the use of ICT, that's where the future is. You've got all these cool kids who are into news feeds or mobile phones and there is very little provision for that in the adult-learning sector.
"I'd like people to have a hard look at the curriculum and make it more flexible because it can never keep pace with the technology."
He warns of "nightmarish scenarios" where e-learning takes place in soulless rooms: just rows of computers. We should, he says, be looking to places like Thailand where in Bangkok's TK Knowledge Park, a shopping centre is combined with a library and play area and "you see youngsters on top of climbing frames reading books". In Hong Kong, Professor Heppell says, young adults drop in to the Cyberport, a campus-like cluster of IT companies and professionals, where they rub shoulders with trendy designers and other role models.
The WAC Performing Arts and Media College in Camden, London is Britain's attempt to put this into practice. Julian Sefton-Green, WAC's head of media arts and education, says: "The computers themselves are not interesting but what they do with them is. We take in a lot of young adults who have failed at school but who have an interest in music or film and get them working on digitally manipulating it. They have to use quite sophisticated software, but they learn it for a purpose and come out with some quite advanced skills in programming."
ICT opens up learning. But there are dangers that in attempting to quantify and record learners' ICT user levels, the innate thrill and excitement of the technology is stifled. Professor Heppell remembers how on a trip to the Far East he asked a Chinese nun what changes she would like to see in learning over the next decade.
"I think there should be more joy," she replied.
Can ICT rise to the challenge?
*www.theyworkforyou.com; www.faxyourmp.org.uk **Realising our Potential