THE Internet is the fastest growing communications medium ever. Half of UK businesses use it, the UK government has a target of putting all its services online by 2005, and eight out of 10 11-16s are regular Internet users. Such statistics illustrate the move towards a new digital economy. We have also seen the rapid expansion of Internet use within education, including the National Grid for Learning.
Physical access to computers, robust Internet connections, quality training for both students and teachers are all basic requirements that help everyone take advantage of the new opportunities that the Internet offers. Is there anything else we need to do to ensure equal access to the Internet within education in the UK?
There is one important factor that we have failed to address. Even if every student in the UK had physical access to the Internet, we would still have a mountain to climb to ensure equal opportunity for all. Why? Because large chunks of the World Wide Web - the killer application of the Internet - remain inaccessible to many students. It has been estimated that as many as 75 per cent of websites are inaccessible to students with physical andor sensory impairments.
No standard tools are being used to build websites, no minimum standards are being applied and no minimum training provision decreed. Some websites and Internet resources will be accessible, most will not.
What I suggest as a first step is simple: training all those involved in developing online materials in an educational environment. The aims of training should be to:
* develop an understanding of why it is important to make online resources accessible to all students.
* ensure current and future online provision is accessible to all.
This will still not solve the problem of unequal access to the Web for many disabled students. There is the question of extra resources and the customised support needed for students with specific impairments. However, it will help to build commitment to ensuring that disabled students will not be disadvantaged when trying to access the Net. This is an essential first step on the ladder.
If the first step is to build commitment, then the second will be to do the work required to ensure accessible online resources. Each academic institution should develop a plan to ensure existing online provision is accessible. This could include: minimum standards for websites, audits of existing sites to highlight accessibility problems and website contracts given only to contractors with a track record of building accessible sites.
I would also suggest that more projects should be established to provide expertise in the development of accessible information on the Web and to act as resources for the academic community. Web authors should know where to turn for answers when problems occur .
The National Bureau for Students with Disabilities predicted last spring that institutions will need to examine technology provision in several areas including all electronic curriculum materials; all learning and teaching tools provided electronically; computing and intranet provision for students; the library; IT support services; and institutions' Web sites.
The journey ahead is not an easy one. More resources, more training and more commitment will be needed. For many working in the education sector the new Special Educational Needs and Disability Rights in Education Bill will be seen as another cost, another burden to bear when resources are scarce. As a society we cannot continue to waste a percentage of our young talent. A positive approach is required to ensure that the skills to thrive in the digital age are being acquired by everyone studying today.
Jim Byrne is director of the Making Connections Unit, Glasgow Caledonian University. Further information can be found at http:www.connections.gcal.ac.uk