Click to open the ground-floor council flat's front door. In the comfortably furnished sitting room, you'll find young children watching an educational video. At their feet, a toddler tussles with a wooden puzzle, while his mother sits on the sofa, patiently listening to his older sister reading. Next door, in a corner of the room, four teenage boys are engrossed on the Internet, while a young woman oversees a group of primary children doing their homework around a table. Add to this a granny exploring a CD-Rom and a father assessing his career development options in the office next door, and you could be forgiven for thinking this cosy domestic scene is a recreation of a modern-day Broons cartoon from the Sunday Post.
In fact, it's a typical early evening in the Learning House, Scotland's first community learning centre of its kind. Opened by Grampian Enterprise Ltd last June, the Learning House provides software, video, person-to-person and online learning opportunities for the people of Middlefield, Aberdeen's area of highest unemployment.
Already, the converted flat, equipped with six computers, a cupboard full of educational software, a Web TV and a video recorder, has attracted more than 900 local learners, as well as establishing two popular homework clubs for primary and secondary school children.
Click on December 2000. Now the options for the Learning House visitors are even more exciting. Using a search engine and management tool, they can access a vast range of learning providers and educational options via the Scottish Learning Network, and choose a package tailored to their needs. They can log on to an online tutorial to receive advice and support from their cyber tutor, and share their learning experiences with peers from diverse areas of Scotland.
What's more, other users are doing the same thing in similar learning centres across Britain, including community venues, schools, colleges, universities and employers' premises. The plug-in-and-play learning culture pervades all areas of society. The emphasis is on access for everyone and the provision of the highest quality learning.
Click on 1996 to access the roots of this vision for the new millennium. It began with a Grampian Enterprise application for European cash to promote information technology in the region's delivery of learning, and has since developed into the Scottish Learning Network project, led by Scottish Enterprise.
The concept is simple. By the end of 2000, the Scottish Learning Network will develop into a Web-based service, providing a free, user-friendly directory of online educational resources. Linked to this central platform (a kind of Yahoo for Scotland) will be registered learning providers, who may charge for their services via e-commerce - customers pay by credit card over the Internet - and who will be responsible for the quality and updating of their own materials. An essential part of the project will be the creation of at least 100 learning centres in Scottish schools, colleges, "learning houses" and training centres, as well as in homes and workplaces.
The project co-ordinator and Grampian Enterprise's director of learning, Bruce Armitage, explains the workplace concept. "The idea of employer as community learning centre aligns nicely with the Government's 'inclusive economy' approach, and creates a win-win situation for both the employer and local people. For example, a major employer in a rural area which opens its doors to online learners will find itself firmly anchored within the local community and, as far as recruitment is concerned, will be in a prime position to put its own skills needs on the local learning agenda."
A further component of the project is the training of 1,000 cyber-tutors in manipulating information and communications technology and delivering online learning. As quality delivery is the linchpin of the entire initiative, an email loop for user feedback will be built in at the earliest stages to allow constant evaluation of both the SLN mechanism and the individual's learning experience.
The project has already attracted considerable interest from Scottish education agencies. Though this has so far been positive, Armitage is aware that online learning may be regarded with suspicion by some. "It's fear of the unknown, and that's understandable. Because the partners in this project - Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise - have no bias in favour of any particular learning provider and have the best interests of the learner at heart, we hope any initial suspicions will be dispelled and that both providers and learners will join us in our journey to see how far we can take it."
Finally, click on 2004, when the the system may well be directing students to learning providers 3,000 miles away, and Scottish online tutors could be conducting group tutorials for learners in all four corners of the globe, and it is evident the project's spin-offs could be as far-reaching as the World Wide Web itself.
Scottish Learning Network - 01224 575100 www.sln.co.uk