Mike Prestage looks at how technology is helping to provide access to learning for people living in remote areas.
A computer terminal in the corner of Linda Bainbridge's home in St Cleer, on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, is giving her the chance to do a basic computer literacy course run under the auspices of Plymouth College of Further Education.
With a young child and living in a remote part of the country, studying from home seemed impossible until she learned of the work being done at Plymouth to provide tuition in rural areas. "There was no way I could have got to the college without the distance-learning initiative I would not have been able to study," says Ms Bainbridge.
"This has been a great opportunity to stretch my brain again and by the time I finish I might be more employable. It means I am able to work at home and fit college work around the family. The whole concept is brilliant."
The only difficulty for Ms Bainbridge has been getting used to the technology. But the back-up from the college helps and just a phone call away is a tutor who can help her through any problems face-to-face on screen via a video and modem link.
Andy Leal, who heads the project at the college, explains that centres for distance learning have been established across Devon and Cornwall. Ms Bainbridge was one of three people piloting the home-study project. One of the major advantages of the scheme is that pupil and tutor are able to share a "whiteboard" and the tutor can take over the computer screen to give individual students lessons. Staff can answer queries via the telephone if students have problems, which makes for an efficient use of tutorial resources.
Mr Leal believes the success of the computers has already been proved. There were plans to expand the number of terminals to 25. One student taking part has severe breathing difficulties and requires oxygen that leaves him virtually housebound the computer link provides his only opportunity for study. "It is already clear that this pilot is going to be successful," said Mr Leal.
A community hall in the village of Bere Alston, Devon, 12 miles from the Plymouth campus, was the first base for a distance-learning link. There two computer terminals with video and modem enabled the first 20 students to talk to their tutors face-to-face and send and receive written work. Tutors are on hand to supervise work and give help and advice from the Plymouth College open access centre.
Hilary Kilborn, manager of the centre, said: "This kind of technology is bound to become more widely available and it opens up the opportunity for people in rural areas to study."
Since the Bere Alston experiment the college has already upgraded the technology to use a system that plugs into an ordinary telephone socket, which means its use can be extended. There are now more than 20 machines at five centres and that is expected to expand to more than 80 within weeks.
Because the machines all have CD-Rom drives any course can be offered for which there is a disc. At present the range of subjects is limited to information technology, Spanish and French, but it is expected to escalate.
Plymouth College and its neighbour, Plymouth University, currently have a bid in excess of Pounds 2 million being considered by the Regional Challenge scheme to extend the system throughout Devon and Cornwall.
There are advantages all round. Students can study locally, with training brought to them rather than vice versa. The college can attract and enrol students who would not otherwise have considered the college an option.
Plymouth is now liaising with colleges in Ireland to set up a distance-learning network there. Irish colleges will provide the main centres with Plymouth acting as a troubleshooter if serious difficulties arise.
The Plymouth scheme is also being expanded to reach companies elsewhere in the Devon area who need staff training but don't want employees to have to travel to the campus. The Community Service Volunteers in Plymouth, for example, want to have computers installed so that staff do not have to visit the college.
The latest distance-learning centre to open in Devon is in Okehampton, where centre co-ordinator Mike Barnett reports a swell of demand for the courses and a willingness to get started. Indeed, he fears one of the main difficulties will be in controlling numbers.
"One of the problems in a rural area is providing services to local people, " he said. "There has been a wide range of interest in what we are offering. The great advantage when it is fully running is that people can learn at their own pace, in their own time, a subject of their choice."