Millions of adults are missing out on education and training because they do not have access to the Internet and other information technologies,according to government advisers on lifelong learning.
Increasing emphasis on technology-based training is creating a "learning underclass" of adults without a route on to the information superhighway either through work or through schools and colleges, it is claimed.
The warning comes in Changing Learners, Changing Technologies, the new report by a task group set up for the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong.
According to the task group, glaring differences between learning "haves" and "have-nots" is being accentuated by the way that the Government has relied on private firms to develop software programmes and provide other IT facilities.
"Issues of access to the information superhighway cannot only be left to the private market," says the report.
Naomi Sargant, who chaired the task group, believes trainers have been taken over by new technology without fully thinking about people who cannot use it. With only 5 per cent of homes connected to the Internet, most people can only gain access at work or educational institutions. "People talk about the Internet and assume it's available to everybody. The real issue is how we reach people who are not employed and not in school or college," she said.
The report argues for a network of local IT centres or learning spaces, many of which will need to focus on teaching basic IT skills. "We should not underestimate the lack of confidence and sense of inadequacy faced by those who feel excluded from the information society," it says.
Employers, some of whom are more concerned that workers may abuse the fact that they have open access to the Internet, are being urged to take a more positive attitude to learning in the workplace. This is especially true as the distinction between learning and work disappears.
The report praises companies using technology-based training to improve the skills of their workforce and those which open their learning centres to the public, but urges more firms to allow facilities to be used by non-employees.
Irene Cooke, a task group member and chair of the British Association for Open Learning, said only a minority of employers open learning centres to the wider public. "More people are being encouraged to come into colleges and companies are trying some new things, but we still have a long way to go," she added. "The cost of equipment is coming down but we are still mainly talking about the middle classes which have access."
Ms Cooke, who is also general manager of the business development unit at Coventry Technical College, says a key issue for trainers and learners is the question of ownership of materials once they are on the Internet. "An organisation like mine cannot afford to simply hand materials across. We have go to get to grips with the question of copyright."
The task group report disputes whether the development of educational software should be left solely to the commercial market. According to Ms Sargant, private suppliers will "cherry pick" lucrative areas of the curriculum, where there is likely to be a large commercial market for learning materials, while ignoring topics such as basic skills. "We need some form of non-profit making consortium which can make more materials available for public use," she said.
Ms Sargant, a former head of education at Channel 4, criticised ministers for not reversing the previous government's decision to grant digital TV licences without any requirement for educational broadcasting.
"Broadcasting is an ideal way of reaching a lot of people," she said. "We must ensure that digital TV, which will create the opportunity for more channels and interactivity, is introduced in such a way that it assists lifelong learning. "
The group included educationists and information technology experts from industry. Group member Chris Yapp, managing consultant with ICL Interactive, called for better dialogue between training providers and IT suppliers over how socio-economic goals can be achieved in the face of rapid technological change.
"We must try to reach a consensus over how new technology can help to create a model for lifelong learning rather than people in education and industry telling each other what they should do," he said.
Changing Learners, Changing Technologies - Recommendations
Learning For the 21st Century , published by Professor Bob Fryer's National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, recommended a massive campaign publicising lifelong learning, tax breaks for people investing in their own training, local learning centres and a new learning channel on digital TV.
Changing Learners, Changing Technologies expands on the Fryer Report by recommending:
* national network of learning centres including libraries, community centres, schools and voluntary organisations;
* greater co-ordination between government departments and between local authorities, training and enterprise councils, and other agencies;
* grants to voluntary groups wishing to set up IT access points;
* funding for part and full-time qualifications in computer literacy;
* Investors in People standard to include requirement for companies to ensure employees have access to IT training;
* tax breaks for firms investing in learning technology;
* minimum standards of IT to be available in colleges and other educational institutions;
* development of a pool of publicly-funded and collaboratively produced learning materials which would be available copyright free for local adaptation;
* not-for-profit national consortium to produce learning materials meeting quality criteria;
* review of copyright laws to increase access for adult learners;
* guarantee educational programmes are transferred to digital TV once analogue broadcasting ceases;
* libraries and other public buildings across Britain to be converted into centres for adults wishing to take their first cautious step on to the information superhighway.