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Pushing prams towards cyberspace

Alan Clarke of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education spent last year travelling around the UK visiting facilities set up for learners who otherwise would not have Internet access.

On the Scottish island of Unst, the most northerly part of the Shetlands, he found a tele-cottage where computers are used to make contact with Internet users elsewhere. "Lots of adults still don't have access to IT but it is growing slowly in some small communities," said Mr Clarke, whose report IT Awareness Raising for Adults has been published by the Government.

Mr Clarke was also impressed by the way residents in the Warwickshire village of Southam are being introduced to computers in the small public library as well as a more ambitious scheme to open video-conferencing suites in libraries throughout Liverpool.

Naomi Sargant's report says it is not arguing for a "chain of educational fast-food stores" as needs in rural areas vary considerably from those on urban estates. But it wants to see more pubs, clubs, cafes and post offices offering IT learning opportunities.

A Milton Keynes community centre renovates donated computers and lends them to people to use at home. "The key thing is to provide a convenient location, " said Mr Clarke. "One man in Milton Keynes told me that people won't travel further than pram-pushing distance."

In Southampton, the Computing for All initiative, launched by the city's colleges 18 months ago, was one of the many victims of cuts resulting from the crisis over demand-led element funding.

Instead of 15 per cent of the local working population gaining level one IT qualifications in the way FE managers had hoped (an estimated 18,000 adults), the figure currently stands at 2,000.

But a consortium of colleges and other training providers in the city is refusing to be dispirited and - as well as continuing to run the programmes - is to launch Computing for Business, a scheme aimed at employees.

John Bridge, director of business studies at City College, Southampton, agrees with Naomi Sargant that colleges must make more use of their facilities. "Computers only have a lifespan of three to four years so we must make sure that they are utilised from 8.30am until 9 pm."

A key feature of all three schemes is co-operation and collaboration - another recommendation in the Sargant report. "We are all pointing people towards other colleges if they are running a course which is more suitable," said Mr Bridge. "Everyone knows that the demand out there is limitless."

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