Home sweet laptop

We must find ways to connect all our pupils to internet access, writes Ray Moore

Technology is so integrated into our daily lives that most of us take it for granted. Yet 2.5 million schoolchildren in the UK do not have access to ICT and the internet at home. They are victims of a digital divide at a time when computer technology is becoming increasingly critical to our children's futures.

The latest UK government statistics (2004-5) show that across the UK, 58 per cent of homes have a personal computer and 49 per cent have an internet connection. In Wales, the respective figures are 51 and 41 per cent - lower than any other part of the UK except Northern Ireland.

At the same time, the annual government family spending survey shows that a higher proportion of homes in Wales have satellite or cable TV receivers (59 per cent) than home computers. For this kind of technology, the Welsh figure is significantly higher than for the UK as a whole (51 per cent).

Wales may also have the highest uptake of digital TV sets.

What can we make of these statistics, and what are the implications for learners in Wales? Clearly there is no resistance to the take-up of digital technologies in Wales generally. And it would be wrong to assume that household income is the only digital divide driver.

Perhaps the reasons for low take-up of computer-based ICT in Welsh homes has more to do with lack of awareness of its benefits or relevance to the family.

There is now little doubt that computer technology, integrated into learning skilfully and effectively by good teachers, will motivate most learners, accelerate learning and raise achievement.

So the continued existence of a digital divide should be of concern to every school as we move towards greater personalisation, the use of virtual workspaces, managed learning environments and out-of-hours access to school networks, the internet and learning resources.

Pupils who live in homes without access to a computer or internet connection are clearly at a disadvantage, and typically these are more likely to be children in poorer homes andor rural communities. Nationally, 93 per cent of homes in the highest income bracket have a home computer, but this falls to only a quarter in the lowest income bracket.

Schools can go some way towards bridging the digital divide by providing out-of-hours access to ICT facilities. However, this can also discriminate against pupils who are already disadvantaged, particularly those who rely on school buses to get home.

More than a fifth of Welsh children are in this bracket, compared with just one in 10 in England. For these pupils, after-school clubs and extended school opening hours fail to provide a solution to their access needs, so alternatives are vital.

Instead, schools can begin to address the very real and possibly increasing disadvantages caused by the digital divide by setting up home-learning initiatives, where pupils take laptops home. This way whole families could engage in learning and in supporting their children's learning.

Of course, programmes like these are expensive. They cannot be funded from traditional sources or even from windfall funding if they are to be sustainable. This is where the e-Learning Foundation can help. It is a national charity working with schools to provide portable learning technology for every pupil, and has provided a series of pump-priming grants for school initiatives in England.

However, sustainability is not achieved through one-off grants but by working closely with parents, the ultimate stakeholders, and other, usually local, potential funding bodies.

Regular financial contributions from parents allow a school to acquire portable computers that can be used in school and then taken home in the evening, at weekends and holidays for extended learning, and also to provide family access. The e-Learning Foundation model uses gift aid regulations to fund the administration of these schemes.

So far, the Assembly government has not allocated any specific pump-priming funding to schools wishing to start an e-Learning Foundation. But there is now an opportunity for a limited number of Welsh schools to obtain support from a long-term collaboration between the e-Learning Foundation and DSGi, the specialist electrical retailer.

Its "switched on communities'" investment programme supports disadvantaged local communities.

It all comes down to local drive, imagination and concern about the digital divide to create a 21st-century learning environment for children in Wales, using technology to provide learning support when and where they want to learn -not just in class and when schools are open.

Schools in England are already rising to the challenge. Successful projects are characterised by vision, determination, good relationships with the community, and the realisation that doing nothing is not an option.

Ray Moore is development director of the e-Learning Foundation, a charity.

See www.elearningfoundation.com

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