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Parent power

Reva Klein reports on a project bringing together parents and consumers to win more influence over the technology being produced for children.

There is still an image of male heads of school information technology departments as one step up from train spotters, sharing the anorak-and-sandals brigade's wearisome delight in jargon and difficulty in communicating with anyone who doesn't share their interest, suggests Ofsted inspector, Pauline Cameron.

Her playful view of these men would be neither here nor there if she weren't passionate about IT herself, or rather, passionate in the belief that a great many people - primarily girls and mothers - are technologically disenfranchised and that something has to be done about it. Their disenfranchisement has arisen from an alienation spawned by jargon, by software that has no relevance to them, by a culture surrounding computers that is as laddish as football cards.

Which is why the veteran classroom teacher, advisory teacher, teacher trainer, Ofsted inspector and school governor has decided to plough her not inconsiderable energies into setting up the Parents Information Network. The aim of the organisation is to demystify information technology for parents who are often mystified to the point of terror, so that they are able to support their children's use of computers and also make that massive leap from technophobia to computer literacy for their own sakes.

She had seen the writing on the wall for quite a while. "In my work as parent, governor and educationist, I've been asked for advice on computers by many people. Teachers would come to me saying their work couldn't be adapted to the technology, or that a particular software program looked good but they didn't know how to use it. And parents want advice on the best hardware to buy and what to do with it once they've got it or are worried that their children will suffer if there is no computer at home because of economic reasons. And I've thought to myself, 'if they're asking me, there's clearly a huge need not being met'. It became obvious that there was no clear direction in which people could go for information about technology."

Given that a priority target audience for PIN is mothers, because they are the ones more often than not spending time helping children with their homework or making themselves available, if they can, after school, Cameron and colleagues devised a way of working that incorporates women's priorities and needs.

Since August 1994, regional networks have been established in Scotland and southern England - with another one on the way in the Midlands - where computers have been taken into the community, into homes that can't afford their own machines and into libraries.

There, a team of volunteer facilitators, the majority of them women, provide informal, blissfully jargon-free training in small groups. PIN's approach to IT is pre-eminently practical. At training sessions, you won't hear the words "ram" or "upgrade". But what you will get is the understanding that, in Pauline Cameron's words, "technology is essentially a tool, just like a food processor or a microwave. There are times when people use it badly or inappropriately, just like there are those who use a microwave to make a cup of coffee. We don't present technology as it's often presented, as a be-all and end-all. What we're doing is giving power and access to technology by meeting people's needs, nothing more and nothing less, and providing that in a non-threatening environment."

Computers, alas, don't grow on trees and a large chunk of Cameron and her colleagues' time and energies have been put into forging links with the IT industry for sponsorship and donations. Generally, she found the industry "shy", largely because of PIN's insistence on independence. Companies, even spectacularly successful ones, aren't keen to give something for nothing, or at least nothing obvious, and look for promotional wheezes as compensation for financial support, which is something that PIN is not prepared to give. Fortunately for the fledgling organisation, there have been generous exceptions to the rule in the form of Apple, Research Machines and Oxford University Press, who have sponsored information leaflets and newsletters. Apple and RM have donated some demonstration kits and both have either provided development money for the project or have pledged free demonstrations to regional groups.

In addition, PIN has developed close working relationships with bodies like the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) and its "IT for Families" project, the RSA's Parents in a Learning Society project and the National Confederation of Parent Teachers Associations. PIN's leaflet, "Helping your child at home with a computer" was written by Professor Stephen Heppell of UltraLab at Anglia Polytechnic University, and is being distributed through the NCPTA's magazine Home and School.

That homeschool link is central to PIN's concerns. Says Cameron, "At the BETT '95 educational technology show, I heard from the teaching fraternity, many of them also parents, who were saying that they're often asked by parents what to get their children and they can't answer them because they don't know anything other than what they use. Teachers are feeling as deskilled in the technology arena we're in as parents are. They need to be more aware of the software being targeted to the home 'edutainment' market. There's a big difference between the two."

PIN's remit is to inform parents so they can help their children. It is also to train parents in a friendly, uncommercial, unpressurised context so they can use technology for their own ends. But it is also to act as what is probably the first united consumer's voice in the world of IT. "The industry needs to act responsibly," asserts Pauline Cameron. "The technology may be interesting but it doesn't relate to young women. It isn't purposeful, there doesn't seem to be a reason for a lot of it, and it is often gender biased."

She sees the need for all of us to be more interactive in our roles as consumers, to tell the industry what we think of sometimes incomprehensible instruction manuals, insufficient after-care service, often inflated pricing on CD-Roms and their violent games.

Cameron clearly has big ideas for PIN. In addition to setting up more regional groups, she wants to get a phone helpline going. She has a desperate need for an office manager to cope with the deluge of queries and has plans for specifically targeting particularly marginalised groups of parents, such as Bengali women in the East End of London. What fuels her is her certainty that PIN is addressing a real, long-awaited need by many, many people out there.

What makes her work so far successful is that the need is being addressed in a language and a methodology that is human, co-operative and woman-oriented. And there's not a single anorak or pair of sandals in sight.

For more information about PIN, send an A4 self-addressed stamped envelope to Parents Information Network, Red Hatch House, St John's Road, Ascot, Berks SL5 7NH (fax: 0344 891 438).

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