Distance no object

20th June 2003 at 01:00
When pensioner Willie Spence was given a digital camera as a present, he wanted to find the quickest way to send photographs to his children on the Scottish mainland.

Mr Spence lives on Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Isles, with his wife Christine. The couple might sometimes feel remote from the rest of their family, but they are not cut off from learning opportunities.

They began attending Telecroft 2000, the learndirect centre on Unst, for an introductory computing course. Not only did they learn to send emails to their daughters in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, but they were soon able to attach digital photos.

Mr Spence, who has since bought a computer to use at home, is delighted at his conversion to e-communication.

"I was able to produce meeting reports for the local church, and even find out whether there were any new parts available for my tractor via the internet," he says.

Not all the learners on Unst are as old as the Spences. Others include parents wishing to keep up with their children's IT skills, and people who need to upskill to find new jobs.

But life on a remote Scottish island poses particular challenges. As well as offering learning, Telecroft is an internet cafe for people without a home computer, and provides photcopying and fax services.

Some 60 people are enrolled as learners but Laura Baisley, the centre manager, says up to 300 people use its facilities each year. A mobile service is sent to neighbouring islands.

The 700 residents of Unst have had access to education through Telecroft - based on the Norwegian tele-cottaging scheme for taking IT to remote communities - for more than 12 years.

Since becoming the most northerly learndirect centre in the UK two years ago, it has grown and been able to invest in new computers. Previously, staff were known to construct new PCs from old parts.

"It has always been a hand-to-mouth operation, but learndirect has made a big difference," says Ms Baisley. "Learning is part of Shetland culture - providing people can gain access to it."

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