Where size matters

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Dorothy Walker talks to Edinburgh council's David Hillson, a man whose grand network designs are bearing fruit

"Big is beautiful, small is just small." So says David Hillson, whose thinking is done on a grand scale. Five years ago, he mapped out his vision for a city that would use the latest technology to provide all its citizens with opportunities to learn. And today he is leading the successful drive to realise that vision.

David is community education manager for The City of Edinburgh Council. His ideas began to take shape in 1999, when the council was completing the installation of a broadband network in schools and community centres across the city - one of the earliest networks of its kind. David, an ICT co-ordinator in a community high school, began asking his educational contacts about plans for the network, and was shocked by their assumption that it would be used solely for admin.

"I was saying, 'Do you know how powerful a tool this is?' You could use the network for adult education classes and youth clubs, for giving people access to the internet and helping them participate in local democracy. You have something that no-one else has, and it could be used for community learning at all levels, in all communities.'

"Eventually they called my bluff," he says. David was asked to write a strategy, setting out his ideas and the resources needed to put them into action. He was given the go-ahead to apply for funding, which came from the New Opportunities Fund and Modernising Government Fund. January 2002 saw the launch of Cityconnect, the organisation tasked with making the vision work, under David's leadership.

Cityconnect brings together a wide range of players - education providers, community groups, IT companies - to provide affordable internet access and learning opportunities, particularly for people from disadvantaged groups.

Ask David for the key to success, with so many different interests at stake, and he says: "It's no secret - you just have to take a lot of time to listen. It is no good trying to give people opportunities or solutions they don't want. I was fortunate in having a year to write the strategy."

One of Cityconnect's projects has brought the power of the internet to elderly people in residential homes. With the help of a webcam, residents are now taking part in local development committee meetings. David says:

"The web can really let everyone participate on an equal basis, and participation is one of the themes that runs through the entire initiative." Computers are also going into pubs, bingo halls and shopping malls.

He makes the point that people who are excluded from technology face a double disadvantage: "Not only do they lack the confidence and resources to get access to the internet themselves, but the local organisations they feel most comfortable working with usually don't have access either." A major effort has been made to provide computers and training for community groups.

He describes himself as "not an IT person", and says: "I love working with people who are not IT experts, but who have real drive in their own areas, be it local politics or literacy. When you are training people, the ambition is to give them the confidence to look at all the ways technology might be able to help them."

The online focus of the project is the myedinburgh website, and community groups are currently being trained in how to publish information, using sophisticated software that helps match their offerings to learning themes such as IT or literacy. The aim is to attract people who might not be attracted by local advertising, or enthused by the idea of learning. David says: "To do that, you have to create something that is not obviously a learning website. There are bus timetables, sports results, cinema information, free email - all the things that keep people coming back."

He adds: "This has all been really exciting, but we still have a long way to go. The ambition is to have all community organisations online, all learning opportunities online, and all citizens with email access. And the fact that we haven't got there yet doesn't stop us trying."

* Teaching tips

* What we are doing is important - don't be afraid to talk it up

* Remember that educators are often more innovative than techies

* Off-the-wall ideas are not usually well served by off-the-shelf solutions

* Big is beautiful, small is just small

* It may not seem like it sometimes, but we can all still be internet pioneers

Websites

* www.myedinburgh.org

Two years' work and two-thirds of the way towards a great learning website

* www.bbc.co.uk

Local weather, news in 42 languages, live radio, Webwise, homework resources - wow!

* http:babelfish.altavista.com

Great fun, and occasionally useful - certainly preferable to putting a fish in your ear

* www.worldsbestwebsites.com

A great starting point for website ideas and ideas for IT taster sessions

* www.busted.com

Busted Online, home of punk-pop band Busted. Keeps my nephews occupied for hours, so it must be good

Contacts

Cityconnect: 0131 557 9051 www.cityconnect.org.uk

www.myedinburgh.org

Runner-up

Lillian Soon ILT co-ordinator Thomas Danby College Leeds

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