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So what's the probability of a nipping head?

I BUMPED into Terri, one of my communication learners, in the lift. She was heading for the ground floor - down and, it seemed, out. She was clutching her cigarettes and a lighter, and hauling on beret and scarf. "I'm running away from my IT class," she said. "It's nipping my head."

As the lift trundled down, she grumbled. She couldn't cope with computers, didn't understand anything she was shown and hated it all. I understood how she felt. I remember my undergraduate days when our psychology lecturer decided to explain fully the theory of probability. He had never understood it properly as a student, though he'd been able to apply it, so he was going to take as long as it took that dark and wintry Tuesday to prove the theory so that we would never go through our academic life doubting Blaise Pascal's brilliance.

He started off well and I understood that probability is the numerical assessment of likelihood on a scale from impossibility to absolute certainty.

I understood about tossing a coin, and heads and tails, and I was still with him when we got on to the one in four probability of picking a diamond from a card deck. Then we moved on to compound events. He scribbled and scrawled on the board using stick after stick of chalk.

Halfway through my head was nipping. Like Terri, I ran away, knowing I was destined to be yet another psychology graduate who would go through life with only a half-baked understanding of the theory of probability.

So I sympathised with Terri and said: "Too right. Off you go. Forget all about those nasty computers." Well, no I didn't, actually. We had a chat and she decided she'd have a quick ciggie outside and then go back and persevere. Not being able to explain the theory of probability hasn't bothered me too much up until now, but I find it hard to imagine how Terri will cope without a working knowledge of IT. It's a core skill, as important as literacy and numeracy.

Terri is a nervous beginner in a new skill, but she'll gain confidence. My digital media learners are already experts in their field, but their learning is taking them into demanding new areas. John and Eddie were considering their option choices, and wondering about journalism. Would it be useful? Where did it sit with web design?

I thought about the virtual learning environment I had just finished producing. My skills there were those of educator, and also subject specialist. Creating the course online, however, meant I had to upskill in web page creation so that the pages were alive and interactive. Could I have produced it without learning these new skills? Would I have been able to design the course in print, and then ask my digital media learners to create useful pages online? I don't think so. The interface between content and production has worn away.

The content of the course was heavily influenced by, and in a sense created by, the means of production available. As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. In the light of that experience, I suggested to them that an ability to create, as well as manipulate text, might well be highly useful to them.

I met Terri the next week in class and she said she had recovered from her panic attack and, yes, she'd gone back to her IT class. At 16, and mastering cut and paste, she's maybe not ready yet to think about the way her life, her learning and her work will be transformed by the digital revolution, or contemplate McLuhan's prophecy about the global village. But will she learn to give up smoking and love the computer?


Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media at Dundee College.

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