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Taking a risk goes right across the spectrum

REMEMBER the ZX Spectrum? Manufactured at Dundee's Timex in the late seventies, it seemed all the budding programmers in the area would spend hours trying to work out a simple loop. For those who stuck at it, sitting alone in their bedrooms, forming groups to share ideas, it was the start of something big.

Last week I went to hear one of those local lads who had started with the Spectrum and had never given up. Chris van der Kuyl, now in his 30s and a key player in the virtual entertainment industry, was talking about enterprise and initiative.

His is a story of ideas, enthusiasm and risk-taking, of a Scottish-grown industry which is now a world player. I suspect he's a pin-up of Wendy Alexander, who is pushing the entrepreneurial spirit in education. At the moment, schoolchildren are guaranteed at least three enterprise experiences. In Dundee College, many of our learners undertake an enterprise unit which allows them to run with a creative idea and follow it through for good or ill, success or failure, and to learn along the way.

My National Certificate media class, now approaching the end of their course, and getting ready to meet new challenges, were keen to hear all about enterprise, initiative and risk-taking. They have been warming nicely to their work, learning to think for themselves, accepting concepts like preferred readings and deliberate ambiguity, and letting go of the mental handrails of right and wrong answers. Yet I had to pause over the idea of risk-taking.

Peter said that his teacher at school had warned him not to attempt to write a short story in his exams. So he didn't, even though he would have liked to.

We discussed risks and consequences, and weighing up the pros and cons. I thought about my own job, and how I, too, have to find a way of being creative and stimulating and yet operate within a tight system, responsible not just for myself but for my learners' futures. Small wonder Peter's teacher advised him to play it safe, one foot on each rung of the ladder, a sure step at a time.

I planted in their minds enthusiasm for getting out there and making their mark, of thinking for themselves and taking risks, but warned them about possible consequences. They probably went off for tea break after my pep talk feeling enthusiastic but slightly anxious, which to my mind is a pretty grown-up state to be in and not wholly undesirable. If Peter were faced with the choice of risking the short story again, I wondered, would he take it or play safe?

I hope that in future, playing safe won't be considered the satisfactory option, and that we can encourage the kind of adventurous risk-taking which will build self-esteem and confidence. Many of the new units I am teaching this year inspire me with hope that we are setting off in the right direction. The press and magazines units encourage learners to think for themselves and argue their case. In my new accommodation in our Graham Street Centre, rock music students rub shoulders with those studying web page design, writing or fine arts.

These are young people who are following their passions and learning how to harness creative instinct to vocational opportunities. We have come a long way from the limitation of the ZX Spectrum.

Today, my learners harness the power of G4 Macs. The machines, though, are only as good as the people who use them. If our learners are given the right kind of encouragement to be creative and adventurous, that's going to be very good indeed.

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

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