EMPLOYERS need to give their employees Internet access during working hours if everyone is to benefit from the online learning revolution, the Trades Union Congress says.
The ability to learn anytime, anywhere is attractive to workers wanting to develop new skills, but the TUC is concerned that some will be left behind unless more can get online.
John Monks, TUC general secretary, said the flexibility offered by learning on the Internet made it attractive.
"Learning online means no longer having to go out on a rainy night to college. If people are not to be left behind, those offline need to be provided with Internet access, preferably during their working hours," he said.
The Government is promoting online learning through initiatives such as the 1,000 University for Industry learning centres being set up across Britain.
To help unions promote training on the Net, the TUC has developed a learning package called learnOnline with the Internet firm Online Education Publishing.
The Congress's National Education Centre is using the system to deliver several courses, on topics such as employment law. As well as providing course materials, assignments and background resources, it allows users to communicate with tutors and each other, both in real time or on a discussion list.
The Musicians Union is using learnOnline to deliver a course for members wanting to take music into the community and gain a national vocational qualification
Simon Pagan, who teaches at the Cleveland School of Music, in Stockton on Tees and, with the local council, runs music sessions for adults with learning difficulties, has already done the course.
He said it suited him because he worked at night, making it impossible to attend evening classes.
"It was incredibly easy to access and I could do as much or as little study as I wanted. I have built on my existing skills and it made me think about new avenues of work," he said.
The TUC believes more must be done to make Internet access available to everyone, including the unemployed and disadvantaged, before online learning could become a mainstream method of education.
It called on employers to encourage this new form of learning by making facilities available and giving workers time to complete their studies.
"Online learning must not contribute to the UK's long-hours culture, but enhance and enrich people's lives and not add to their already rising stress levels."
Meanwhile, a new government report has recommended that people in deprived neighbourhoods should be able to access the Internet in at least one public place by April 2002.
The Social Exclusion Unit report also called for annual
targets to ensure 75 per cent of people in these areas have the capability and skills to access
electronically delivered public services by 2004. Mentors from the local community should be available to provide training and support, the report said.
"Closing the Digital Divide: ICT in Deprived Areas" can be read at: www.pat15.org.uk