Passengers and crew on the Orkney ferries are being offered computer taster sessions in a project that is bringing a breath of fresh air to lifelong learning. Port to Port has attracted 250 mostly new e-learners since it was launched by Orkney College Learning Centre in September 2004. Opportunities to expand it are immense, given that local people make some 300,000 ferry journeys a year in and around the islands.
Last year Port to Port was shortlisted for its innovative work at the final in the national e-learning awards in London. The ferry project targets passengers and crew with laptop sessions covering everything from IT skills to literacy support in Learningbytes, short courses which are accessed over the web, to demonstrations of farm cattle programs.
"Many of the people travelling on these ferries would not normally make use of learning opportunities and do not have the confidence to use learning centres or engage in other forms of formal learning," says the project manager, Lorna Hirst. "Our aim is to make practical, innovative use of inter-island travel. New technology, using wireless internet access - laptops with datacards -enables hard-to-reach learners to access a wide range of learning opportunities in a friendly, non-threatening environment."
Five tutors, experienced in training and guidance, take on board one or two laptops to engage the learners in one-to-one sessions as well as giving demonstrations to small groups. In good weather, sessions can be held on deck.
Lessons include a basic introduction to computers, Internet Made Easy, Webwise, Typing Tutor, word processing, desktop publishing, spreadsheets, the European Computer Driving Licence, setting up and using email, ordering online, checking out the Learningbytes catalogue and enrolling, internet banking, family history and product searches.
"We've found that flexibility is the key. Training is based on individual need and simple demonstrations are conducted for those lacking confidence,"
says Ms Hirst. "People too nervous to join classes or go to a learning centre can have a look at a laptop with a friendly tutor.
"A sensitive approach is used in the support for literacy embedded in the training. Learners are directed to the BBC Skillswise site. A number of regular travellers, young men, have expressed an interest in improving their English. Where appropriate, we have arranged referrals to Careers Scotland or other learning centres which suited them."
The cattle programs are targeted at the many farmers who travel regularly to the auction mart in Kirkwall. A CD-Rom simulates the British cattle movement website which farmers need to access to update their cattle records (registrations of births, cattle movements, history of the herd or individual animals, etc).
A successful marketing campaign on local radio, press and Grampian Television helped to raise the profile of the initiative. Now travellers often seek out the tutors once they board the ferries.
"We began in partnership with Orkney Ferries and the outreach centres on the islands," says Ms Hirst. "However, we now have partnerships with Northlink Ferries and Pentland Ferries and we also use trainers from two other organisations in Orkney - Support Training and Grainshore Training Centre.
"We've found that many people are very interested in the mobile internet connection, particularly ferry staff who stay on board overnight. The connection has attracted some relatively computer literate people who could be inspired into further learning. Many are interested in the European Computer Driving Licence.
"Potentially, this could be a solution to poor dial-up connection speeds in many areas around Orkney," she says.
Feedback from the e-learners has been very positive. One learner from Westray writes: "I was shown the basics of spreadsheets of which I knew nothing. I can now see the potential benefits for my business".
And a farmer from Stronsay perhaps sums up the reactions of many when introduced to the benefits of IT: "As someone who has rejected these modern gadgets for the last 10 years, my eyes have been opened."