Giving households free computers and Internet access has opened new doors to learning, reports Douglas Blane
Lack of access to computers and confidence in using them has created what the Scottish Executive calls the "digital divide". While a third of Scotland's population has Internet access at home, many others cannot switch a computer on.
The groups most seriously affected by the digital divide are those that are already most excluded within society, the Executive report Digital Inclusion: Connecting Scotland's People highlighted in September 2001.
"Without intervention, the level of comparative social disadvantage experienced by the digitally excluded can be expected to worsen," it said.
Last year the Executive launched an initiative giving every household in two selected communities - one urban, one rural - a computer, free Internet access for a year and an introductory course on how to use their windfall.
The cost was pound;3.5 million.
The expected benefits include not only improved confidence and employability among the communities' adults, but also much greater participation by parents in schoolwork, which is an important factor in a child's success at school.
In Bellsmyre, a run-down West Dunbartonshire housing estate, this educational aim was quite explicit and local schools were at the heart of the Digital Communities project.
"We were given 10 computers to set up a learning centre in the school to provide tutor-led introductory courses," says Lesley Robertson, headteacher at Aitkenbar Primary. "Beyond that, the idea was for our children to become family tutors and share their expertise with mums, dads, grannies and grandpas."
At first the children had to act as family tutors without any training or resources, merely trying to pass on what they had picked up themselves.
Then, in April this year, Learning and Teaching Scotland piloted a course in Aitkenbar aimed at teaching the children how to tutor.
"During the summer term, we ran weekly sessions with P6 pupils at Aitkenbar Primary," says Fiona Andrew, head of learning resources at LT Scotland. "We took them right from the basics of starting up a computer and logging on to the Internet.
One potential hitch was that the school's computer suite is fitted out with Apple Macs, while those installed in the Bellsmyre homes are PCs. The youngsters took this hurdle in their stride, says Ms Andrew. "We looked at the differences during one session - much less nowadays than they once were - and away the kids went. It gave them no trouble at all."
After the basics, the course progressed to use of the Internet as a resource for schoolwork, issues of safety, copyright and virus protection and writing and receiving e-mail. A selection of websites was provided for pupils to investigate, on topics ranging from online shopping and travel information to the Romans in Scotland and Paddington Bear in Peru.
Each week the children were given a feedback sheet on the activities they had just learned to take home to a chosen member of their family and get written comments after they had passed on their skills.
"Feedback from the activity sheets showed they were being used successfully at home," says Ms Andrew. "Together with comments from the staff at Aitkenbar Primary, these have been taken into account to produce the final versions of the training pack (called Making Connections), which contain not only lessons and notes for the kids but also additional ones for teachers and parents."
Headteacher Lesley Robertson describes the LT Scotland course as a structured and progressive way for her pupils to learn computer and research skills and pass them on to their parents.
"The benefits are that a much wider world of knowledge is available to the kids, and parents who once might not have known how to start can now play an active part in their children's schoolwork."
Most of the youngsters say they love the feelings of importance and responsibility that come with teaching valuable skills to their families but there are drawbacks and being a teacher has its tedious side. "You show them something and next time they come to the computer it takes them half an hour to find the keys again," said one lad with exasperation.
The Making Connentions packs used to teach primary children computer and Internet skills and pass them on will be available at the SETT show, and subsequently on www.ltscotland.org.uk
Fiona Andrew and Lesley Robertson will give a talk on Making Connections on Thursday at 9.30am