'It is going to make a big difference'

Mull and Iona, Colonsay and Oronsay, Tiree, Kerrera and Luing: the names are as appealing as the fantasy of escaping the pressures of life by moving to a remote rural area. But small island life can be hard and Scotland's second digital community - a group of 13 islands in North Argyll - aims to counter the disadvantages.

"Very few of the islanders would describe themselves as deprived," says Gerry Wilson, Argyll and Bute's head of information technology infrastructure, "and the majority aren't in any social or economic sense. But they are geographically deprived."

What this means is that educational and cultural resources that are often taken for granted elsewhere, such as universities, libraries and museums, can take at least a day to reach. Pupil rolls across the authority's 82 primary schools average a few dozen. Living in hostels all week is a necessary fact of life for many secondary pupils.

Modern technology has great potential to compensate for all these aspects of deprivation and Argyll and Bute is already well advanced in using computers to connect their schools to an online learning environment that supports teaching resources, video-conferencing, e-mail messaging, web development and subject-related discussion areas.

"But we are never as advanced as we'd like to be," says Mr Wilson. "So, within the digital community, we are now going to open up secure access to these services direct from homes. That means all the educational facilities the kids have in school will be readily available for them and their parents on their PCs at home.

"We are also putting webcams into every house to allow teachers, pupils and parents to talk face-to-face. A lot of island youngsters have to go to Oban High during the week, so the webcams are going to be an ideal way for them to chat with home."

Digital initiatives set up in England, Ireland and elsewhere have almost all been located in areas of economic rather than geographic deprivation. The experience gained in those communities provides valuable lessons for Argyll.

"Some of those initiatives failed because the organisers didn't put enough effort into carrying the community with them right at the start," says Mr Wilson. "Folk can be very suspicious of something for nothing, especially if the Government is involved. So we made a point of going out and explaining the initiative to the community and carrying them with us.

"We have also benefited from an extremely supportive local press."

Computer training for the residents will be given by Argyll College initially in schools around the islands. Later learners will be able to extend their knowledge and skills at their own pace using online materials provided by the Scottish University for Industry.

Currently 40 personal computers a day are being delivered to homes in the Argyll digital community and the full complement of 2,000 should be installed by October. The council has committed pound;100,000 a year to the project and a bid for European funding has been submitted.

"One of our main aims," says Mr Wilson, "is to make sure the free Internet access continues beyond the first year, because as soon as you start charging, people will fall away. We want to structure the project so that we get long-term educational benefits. Nobody will learn everything in a year.

"We have set our targets high, and no doubt plenty of things can go wrong, but if there are failures there will also be lots of successes. It is going to make a big difference to the community."


* delivering new opportunities

* overcoming the barriers of geographical isolation

* creating employment opportunities and local business support

* creating a competitive, innovative and diverse economy

* improving the use of information technology

* increasing economic well-being and maintenance of successful and vibrant communities

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