Act now to bridge this digital divide

29th January 2010 at 00:00

Over the next few months, thousands of children in England will receive their first home learning computer, thanks to the Home Access project. The scheme provides a grant of pound;500 towards a laptop and a 12- month free broadband connection to children in up to a million lower- income households, so they can learn online at home as well as at school.

Home Access is being managed by Becta, the Government agency for technology and learning, with the e-security software installed by iomart's subsidiary company Netintelligence.

Recent research has suggested that having a computer at home leads to an improvement of two grades in examinations at GCSE level. Children benefit from having the extra time to develop their ICT skills at their own speed, something that can be difficult in a busy classroom. It can also help their parents and carers improve their computer skills too.

While computers are used in most Scottish classrooms today, many schoolchildren are still not able to continue their learning online at home. For an education system that prides itself on its international reputation, it seems strange that the Scottish Government has failed to roll out a similar scheme.

I am not just saying this because my company is involved, but because I am the father of three young children and can see the benefits.

My children's use of computers at home not only expands their learning experience, but also equips them with the skills that virtually every employer will demand in the future. My children are lucky - we have access to the latest technology. But what about those thousands of Scottish schoolchildren whose families are not so lucky and who stand to miss out on the opportunities that today's technology brings?

Those of us who cannot imagine life without the internet are all guilty of assuming that everyone else must be as busy emailing and tweeting as we are. We couldn't be more wrong.

The latest official statistics reveal that about one third of the UK's population still does not have access to the internet at home, and roughly a quarter of the UK's adult population has never accessed the internet at all. Guess which region has the UK's lowest access level? Yes, it's Scotland.

Third United States President Thomas Jefferson said: "All that is necessary for a student is access to a library." While this is obviously simplistic, it highlights the fundamental fact that information access is key to the education of an open society.

The internet offers us the biggest single opportunity, since the founding of the Library of Alexandria in 288 BC when papyrus replaced tablet, to advance the publication of mankind's knowledge for the benefit of all.

And yet we are witnessing the creation of a digital divide in Scotland - those with access to technology and those without. All Scots deserve to benefit from the information age, whether it is searching for jobs, managing bank accounts, communicating with relatives, or simply finding the cheapest source for everyday goods and services.

Consider these two statements: "We need to equip our people with the tools that will enable them to take advantage of these developments. No one should be left behind, social justice demands that everyone who wants access to the web has access to the web and the support to get themselves online"; and "Disadvantaged households are already behind when it comes to internet access, and we have to make sure they do not fall further behind so that everyone can make the most of the educational, social and community opportunities that ICT will bring."

These were the words of the then First Minister Henry McLeish back in September 2001 during the launch of Scotland's much-heralded Digital Inclusion Strategy.

No one could argue with the sentiment but here we are nearly a decade later, with very little tangible evidence that the strategy has delivered.

I sat on one of the committees that drew up the guidelines for the Home Access scheme, and at the front of our minds was the need to recognise the role of parents and carers - to create a partnership between the child, their carers and their school. We wanted parents and carers to feel that technology would open up the world of learning as much for them as for their children, while helping them gain a greater understanding of how their child's schooling works.

But we were also mindful, just as you wouldn't let someone drive a car on a road without a test, that we needed to ensure that every member of the household felt safe and comfortable with the technology.

Home Access enjoyed successful pilots in Oldham and Suffolk, with more than 90 per cent of the eligible population in the two authorities receiving grants. The Government now hopes that increased access to the internet across England will enable local authorities, schools and other learning providers to strengthen their links with the community and local commerce. Scotland please take note.

Let's not deny Scots one of the greatest gifts that we can bestow: opportunity. We can't ever hope to be a truly aspirational country if we do not open up the possibilities the internet offers to all of society and not just to those who can afford it.

Phil Worms is director of corporate communications for iomart Group.

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