THE exclusive world of information technology is becoming a little more inclusive thanks to an initiative aimed at some of the most deprived members of society.
The north-western district of the Workers' Educational Association is already a pioneering new communication technologies. In the past nine years, it has implemented a raft of ICT initiatives designed to reduce social exclusion by taking the new technologies to people in Manchester, Tameside, Oldham and Stockport. Last month, the district won a British Educational and Communications Technology Agency UK Website Award.
Ian Harford, the district's secretary, said: "We are trying to ensure that it is not just the upper crust of people who are able to tap into this wired world, but that we actually get it out into local communities to people who find it more difficult to afford the initial set-up costs."
His region claims to be the first WEA district to run Internet training courses, the first to run multimedia music courses and the first organisation in the UK's further and adult education sector to set up a "broadband" (high-capacity) multimedia learning resource centre .
The centre, in the association's Manchester office, offers a very fast link to the information network called Janet linking British universities. It gives adults an insight into the uses of the new technologies. Adults on the association's computer training courses are also entitled to two hours' free access to the Internet.
The association allows disadvantaged groups such as deaf people and those with learning difficulties to borrow portable computers to practise on for up to four weeks at a time. This enables them to reinforce their computer skills at home.
It also runs courses for tutors, showing them how the new technologies can be applied to learning throughout the curriculum from languages to the arts.
In conjunction with Manchester Computing, the network and computing services department of Manchester University, and Lancashire education department, the WEA is also setting up a sign-language dictionary of common computing terms for the deaf which can be accessed via the Internet.
"One in seven of the population has got some sort of hearing impairment," Dr Harford said. "The deaf find concepts such as information society, modem or e-mail very difficult to get hold of." The idea is to create a common sign-language vocabulary which can be consulted from anywhere via a PC terminal.
Deaf groups in Preston and Blackburn will also be trained in ICT and multimedia skills. It is hoped that after training about 60 per cent of these students will go on to further education and training, and 40 per cent into paid or voluntary work.
Between 1995 and 1997, more than 150 people from the Hattersley housing estate in east Manchester attended the WEA's "IT in the Community" courses. Subsequently, a computer training centre was set up in the local library to develop computer skills, improve employability and explore ways of setting up new businesses.
Tameside Council has also commissioned the association to build a website for the voluntary sector to advertise its activities locally.
"The potential for publishing on the web is very attractive to organisations and is a great incentive to students who can see the work they are doing published for other people to see," says Dr Harford.
The WEA is also running multimedia courses in music in Oldham and Rochdale, which appealed to African-Caribbean young people wanting to create music on computers.
"We want to develop this work and integrate it into our general community programmes for widening participation," Dr Harford says. "Information technology is an important skill which actually motivates people. They are very keen to become involved. It's an opportunity for people to learn a skill which is going to them get back into work."
Workers' Educational Association: www.wea.org.uk. The north-western district's award-winning website is at www.nw.wea.org.uk