Out of the attic and into Africa;Comment;Opinion

8th March 1996 at 00:00
The call came late on a Sunday night. "Mum, my girlfriend's bought this computer and we've put it in the next room. Could you teach us how to use Windows and Word in half an hour, if I relay the instructions through to her?" As remote Just in Time Training went it was one of the hardest tasks I've been asked to undertake. The upside was that the aforementioned son no longer needs the computer he borrowed when he went off to university.

My original word-processor has come home. And I have to decide what to do with a machine that works as well as it ever did, but which I and most of the world have overtaken. The conflict is that while it would be absurd to recommend it to anyone as a starter machine because the skills learnt are not transferable it would be a shocking waste to consign a working machine to the bin.

Plockton High School has a project designed to tackle this type of problem, along with many others. Terry Heaviside, one of Plockton's teachers, often told his students of his yearning for more sunshine, and when the pupils designed a project for the Royal Bank of Scotland's IT Innovation Awards, which they won recently, they didn't forget. Their project aims to collect old IBM compatible or Macintosh computers and take them out to Africa this summer and set up a number of IT centres. Ambitious, or what?

Proof that the initiative has caught the imagination of more than the Royal Bank has been demonstrated by Glasgow Nautical College and Langside College, which between them have donated 60 machines. Selective Solutions, a Nottingham company which installs new computers, has donated more than 100 286s.

The Plockton pupils are on the lookout for suitable software to run on these machines, and anyone with original disks and documentation is invited to send them to the school. My shelf looks much tidier without that early SuperCalc and Gem, and yours could too. On a larger scale, the Scottish Council for Educational Technology has contacted Microsoft and suggested it might like to help by supplying licensed versions of Microsoft Works. The deal is not yet finalised, but the response from Bill Gates and his team has been sympathetic.

In Africa, contacts have been made in a variety of ways. A Plockton teacher with a Kenyan family connection has opened up links to a headteacher who will provide space for a centre that more than 100 local schools can use. Over Christmas, a man from South Africa booked bed and breakfast in Plockton, and the locals discovered his job involves computers and education. He has put Terry Heaviside in touch with some South African schools that were previously non-white and are seriously underresourced, and with the Computer Society of South Africa which runs an adopt-a-school scheme aimed at local industry.

Meanwhile, two Swedish nuns with contacts in Namibia were roped in, and thanks to support from the country's ministry of education Namibia will join Kenya and South Africa as beneficiaries. Between 10 and 20 resource centres will be set up and equipped this summer by Terry Heaviside, a colleague and six of Plockton's 300 pupils.

The more successful the project becomes, the bigger the financial burden that falls upon this small Highland community. Bob-a-job schemes and sponsored walks have raised pound;750 towards the shipping costs of the computers. As happens in small communities, everyone is involved, including local crofters who were in South Africa 30 years ago and have sent in contributions. Industry has been invited to sponsor a network of African centres, each of which will cost about pound;250 to set up, and already Stagecoach has responded by pledging pound;500. Considerably more assistance will be required to fulfil a scheme that never anticipated such success.

You can bet your life that if there is a way to get these computers to Africa, the folk of Plockton will find it. I only wish someone could find such a worthwhile use for my old word-processor.

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