Flair in the e-community

10th November 2000 at 00:00
In Cambridgeshire during the Thirties, Henry Morris established village colleges to offer community education to all citizens from cradle to grave. Now we have an information and communication technology (ICT) revolution occurring in our homes and communities.

The technology is there to connect our communities, but we must remember that it must complement and improve them. With a long tradition of community education at Sawtry Community College we were keen to harness the potential of new technologies and ensure nobody was left offline.

The allocation of specialist college status to Sawtry was the catalyst for investment in cable connectivity and new technology. Then as we realised the limitations of cable and dedicated computer suites, this was complemented by wireless connectivity and laptops. With such high investment in technology, we felt the whole community should make full use of it.

Computer workshops for parents and grandparents have raised awareness of ICT skills and led to a better understanding about how and where we can learn. People can book a computer with Internet access in the library or sports centre foyer and access the BBC Webwise course and adult education courses.

People are also introduced to the benefits of the Net by using our information point, Opportunities Link (www.opportunity.org.uk). This allows anyone to use a touch-screen kiosk for free to search for information on jobs, training, child care and social benefits. People of any age or ability must feel comfortable with technology, hence the information points and Net access in the library and shoppingbusiness foyers are easy to use.

Once people are confident with the technology, they can explore activities and services. For example, our parish magazine has been replaced by a village website (www.yaxley.net), while www.sawtry.net also caters for the business user. And senior citizens visitig the CARESCO centre (a voluntary organisation providing care in the community and day centre facilities - www.sawtry-eye.co.uk), can be taught by students how to email relatives and benefit from online shopping.

Local health centres are also exploring the benefits of new technology, not just for administration but also to provide information and advice on websites. This is particularly important when our community links up with partner communities in Uganda; for example, the health education programme in Gaba, near Kampala, benefits from a video Internet link for medical training.

Local businesses can use our Business Innovation Suite to access information. As a Technologies for Training centre we can demonstrate new technology to small to medium-sized companies. Likewise, many businesses buy powerful computers but do not realise they have purchased a multimedia training centre for employees. We encourage employers to invest in training by inviting them to preview the multimedia training resources in our Preview Centre for Video ArtsMelrose and the BBC (www.multitask.org.uk).

But without sustainable funding the plug would soon be pulled on the community's technology. All members and organisations in the community are encouraged to contribute to our Sawtry e-learning charitable foundation. The allocation of one-off Lottery or NGFL funding may put technology in place for a short period, but it does not allow the community time to develop the complex infrastructure and cultural changes necessary.

Local people have ensured my feet stay on the ground by reminding me to speak the same language and not assume everyone knows what ICT, online or Windows mean. Likewise, our Learndirect centre will only be a success if we use friendly tutors and advertise in a language people understand.

Alan Stevens is vice-principal at Sawtry Community College college@sawtrycc.org.uk

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