Getting to grips with computers

12th January 1996 at 00:00
In a library at Lambeth College, south London, a student is calling up a map of Mongolia on a computer terminal. Evelyne Malou, 23, appears to be taking an uncommonly broad perspective on her nursery-nursing studies.

Closer inspection reveals Evelyne is completing an end-of-year quiz set by her sociology tutor, using a CD-Rom format encyclopaedia to discover the capital of the Far Eastern republic.

Obscure though the task may be, it ensures she - like the college's other 10,000 students - gets to grips with the intricacies of new technology.

Lambeth, with roughly one computer to every 10 students, is relatively well equipped compared with many colleges in the sector, according to the Higginson Report. Formed from a triple college merger, it inherited the inadequate IT resources of all three, prompting substantial investment in hard and software which remains up to date.

The college is also ahead of the game, in terms of the Higginson proposals, in its plans for electronic links with other institutions and networks. Thanks to a successful bid for Government cash, Lambeth and six other London colleges will soon be linked to each other and, via the University of North London, to the Internet and the higher education electronic network, known as JANET.

Within the college's own campus, E-mail messages daily wing their way from terminal to terminal, speeding up communication between the five scattered sites.

Despite being so well-connected, Lambeth could still benefit from a national FE network of the kind envisaged in the report, says Liz Fryer, director of the curriculum for learner support. "I can see the possibilities of linking hubs like the one being established in London, providing the whole network was designed to be used by students, not just academics."

She shares with other managers, however, strong reservations over the costs of the Higginson proposals. Finding the cash to keep current resources up to date, while also covering for the persistent thefts of microchips experienced by colleges and schools countrywide, drains funds to the limit.

The recent Budget announcement of Pounds 100 million of cuts in FE capital expenditure makes the possibility of contributing to national IT projects more remote than ever.

The initiatives themselves, adds Mrs Fryer, are praiseworthy but not entirely new. "There might have been more concrete detail such as recommended ratios on numbers of students to computers. There's also no reference to the IT skills students arrive with from school - no link back to the key stages."

Experience with an extensive staff-training programme at Lambeth prompts the comment that the proposed mass national training scheme will prove useful only where staff subsequently have easy access to equipment. The report's references to growth in resource-based learning, saving on costly classroom contact time, does not match the experience at Lambeth.

Here, all computer use forming a timetabled part of courses is supported by teachers, though students can, and do, put in extra hours at the terminal in the college's study centres and libraries. "Like any inner-city college, we have to look at the needs of our students and judge how far they can cope on their own," says Mrs Fryer.

The Higginson vision of students being weaned from the blackboard to the terminal seems far away.

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