Lost in cyberspace

16th June 2000 at 01:00
Parents really can overcome their fear of computers and the internet - with help from their children. Mary Hampshire reports from Tyneside

Julie Ingram looks daunted amid a sea of workstations at Tyneside's Monkseaton Community High School. Her two children - school pupils Ben, 11, and Georgia, 7 - casually perch on chairs ready to start a lesson.

They don't seem too fazed, for they are about to teach their mother computing skills. "Last week, in the first lesson, the class facilitator asked if there was anyone who didn't have a clue," admits Ingram, 38, a sales assistant.

"Ben's arm shot up. 'Mam, that's you,' he shouted. It was a bit embarrassing. My knowledge is basic. I prefer to be taught by my kids rather than an adult - it's less intimidating."

The school has invited teachers and parents from Whitley Bay to information technology lessons. The difference is they are taught by pupils. Families do the workshops for free; teachers pay pound;10.

The classes are based on CyberSkills workshops, written by technology company ICL. Classes cover the internet, email, videoconferencing and multimedia, and run once a week for six weeks. Each session lasts one-and-a-half hours.

A rolling programme open to parents and schoolteachers was launched in April this year. Around 20 families signed up for the Family Learning Sessions - adapted by head teacher Paul Kelley and former pupil and undergraduate Fiona Robson. Ten have already taken part in a trial run and there's a waiting list. Uptake for the separate schoolteachers' workshops is also high, with 188 bookings for 15 sessions over a recent three-week period. It is hoped small businesses will be given the opportunity as well.

Kelley says: "We want to encourage lifelong learning and become a hub where individuals and businesses can learn new skills to improve their prospects, increase their company's competitiveness or simply for pleasure. Our students benefit. Their communication skills, confidence and experience improve."

Many CyberSkills pupils realise that children, either their own or those they teach, are outpacing them in IT. "I am shocked by how much my two kids know," says Julie. "They're so confident. Technology is moving at such a fast pace, people of my age will be left behind."

But what do Ben and Georgia think of instructing their mum? "Weird," replies Ben. "He thinks I should know more than him because I'm his mum," Julie adds.

Tonight's class of eight families - mums and dads mostly in their 30s and 40s - file in with their kids to be introduced to the internet. "It's like going to your local library but being able to get into any other library in the world," say the facilitator. "Your access point is your computer."

An overhead projector lists activities which can be managed over the internet - shopping, booking holidays, banking and resources for work and communication. Then the class get stuck in with guidance from worksheets, their own kids and other pupils who act as facilitators.

Lower sixth former Leslie Miller, 17, taught his neighbours to use the internet after they received computers as Christmas presents. "I also helped a children's entertainer set up a website and jumped at the chance to teach here," he says. "It's good experience."

Philip Smith, 14, still in his school uniform, adds: "It's really interesting being a teacher. Older people are shy about asking for assistance. But I do get a lot of pleasure from helping them."

The task tonight is for parents to find sites their children will enjoy and vice versa. The incentive for the children is time to play Pokemon and other games.

Julie is scrolling onto a health webpage. "Ben, I've made a mistake. How do I get off this?" she pleads, turning to her son. "What now?" he moans, engrossed in a game. He leans across and corrects her at the press of a button.

Caroline Ayre, 40, is on a return-to-nursing course after six years out. She marvels at her eight-year-old daughter Rachael. "She whizzes through icons," she says. "She's much better than I am at finding her way around the keyboard.

"My computer skills are very basic. It really hit me when I started my course. Things have moved on a lot from when I was last at college. I had to do something."

Simon Wiseman, 34, a regional sales manager, is with his son Callum, aged 5. "I use word processing packages at work, and email. But I wanted to learn to surf the internet. Callum seems to have picked it up very quickly. His brain is like a sponge."

Mark Robertson, 35, a product manager, is accompanied by his son Callum, 8, and four-year-old daughter Jenny. "We have a PC at home, but we rarely find the time to do things together," he says. "This is a good opportunity."

Tutors undergo five days' CyberSkills training. "The main theme is to let people work things out for themselves, to empower them," explains Rowena Coxon, a school librarian and workshop project manager. "For example, in an ordinary classroom, my approach might be to grab the mouse and demonstrate myself. But in CyberSkills, it's more hands off, less intrusive, and more of a facilitating role."

The aim of demystifying new technology seems to be rubbing off. Julie adds:

"Before, I was terrified that if I pressed the wrong button, I'd lose everything. Now I'm less frightened of computers."

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