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Sisters are doing IT

The women of rural Northumberland have welcomed a mobile computer classroom. But the men aren't so sure. Julie Read reports.

THE inhabitants of the sparsely populated mining and fishing communities of Northumberland had taken little interest in the digital revolution. Trying to persuade them to improve their computer literacy was never going to be easy.

But when the villagers of places such as Berwick, Widdrington and Belford heard that a bus would be travelling to them with tutors and laptops on board, curiosity got the better of them.

The bus comes from Northumberland College, winner of last year's Beacon Award for Lifelong Learning. It is is based in Ashington, once described as "the biggest pit village in the world", and is the sole provider of lifelong learning to a county spanning 5,260sq km.

The college is surrounded by estates with high levels of first and second-generation unemployment.The local jobless include former miners who were, unsurprisingly, mortified at the thought of going to college. But if the education could be taken to them, the college thought, there might be a different reception.

"We had people living across the road from the college who would never dream of stepping inside so we had to change the approach," says the college's outreach education and curriculum director Patti Budd.

For the past two years, the purpose-built, carpeted bus (affectionately known as "Budd's bus", after Patti), has carried 10 laptops, 10 desks and a generator and now visits four or five villages a week, depending on demand.

In most villages, tutors hold three IT sessions, each lasting two-and-a-half hours and funded partly by the Further Education Funding Council's Information and Learning Technology projects. Students have to pay a pound;10 flat fee for the year.

"Any village in the county can ask us to travel to them. All they need is at least 12 interested learners and a strip of flat land for the bus," adds Ms Budd.

Most of the 10 lifelong learners, aged 17 to 88, who jump on board each week take the college's home-grown 10-week Open College Introduction to Computers. Many are expected to carry on and do the European Computer Driving Licence.

"Most people here have little interest in IT, they just want to learn how to use a computer. And the theory that everyone's got one at home is simply not true," says Ms Budd. She is convinced that computers can be the great 21st-century leveller, that they generate higher levels of literacy. She also thinks that "technophobia" is just a hang-up for academics.

Social leveller they may be, but there is a marked gender divide among recruits. It is single mothers rather than young men, wives rather than husbands, who are becoming acquainted with Windows '98 and Office 2000.

Widow Jean Scott, 67, feels that software skills will be useful for her administrative job at the Post Office. Also, her son lives in the US and she eventually wants to write to him by e-mail. She says she was petrified when she went on a college computer course for her job, but enjoys the cosy, atmosphere of the bus. The bus is not linked to the Internet yet - but it is only a matter of weeks.

Sitting behind her is 53-year-old Jacqueline Stewart, a part-time cafe worker who wants to become computer literate to get a job in book-keeping. She says:

"I've always been good with figures and it means I can get different work. We definitely need more of these buses."

Mrs Stewart says she could not have finished the course if it had entailed travelling 40 miles to Northumberland College on winter evenings.

The courses are also being offered at three council-owned People's Houses in Newbiggin, Bedlington Station and Hirst - and are in great demand. But, again, the students are mainly women.

As Northumberland College embarks on working with the local coal company to set up IT courses for ex-miners, it remains to be seen whether the men will bite the bullet.

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