Welcome to a new world of learning

From time to time I am asked how I decide upon a subject for this column, and I don't have an answer; because I write about an issue that has cropped up in the relevant time frame. This week, though, I mistakenly felt that I must choose between two topics dear to my heart: user support and the University of the Highlands and Islands. They are inseparably intertwined; how could I have been so daft as to try to deal with them singly?

As an Internet service provider, our business runs a help desk, and this very morning I have spent considerable time with one of my clients, teaching her how to associate a file in Windows. I know it is not part of the brief of an ISP help desk, but new online users have nowhere to go to seek this kind of help, and without it their development is held back. So, although I do it, my willingness to provide free telephone consultancy on whether there is enough space left on a disk to download a coveted game is wearing thin.

Let's just say that while I want my users to get the best out of the system, when they confront me with the query, "I can't connect to the Internet; is the problem something to do with this big grey thing attached to the back of my computer?", I am sorely tempted to make remarks about keeping your elephant under control, Madam.

OK, gripe over, but you get the picture. There is enormous interest out there from users, and little or no sources of immediate help. If these are the kinds of technology we are likely to be using for the University of the Highlands and Islands, then supporting users is a major issue, and one that needs tackling early on. Brian Duffield, the newly appointed chief executive, will no doubt have it on his list of things to do.

Drumming up support and interest will also be near the top on his agenda, I am sure. The Millennium Commission has done its bit to help, and the colleges are working hard at the potential developments. I was with college staff in the central belt when the news of the funding was announced, and the enthusiasm was very catching, so I could not wait to get back to the Highlands and Islands to gauge the reaction of the folk in the area.

In fact, I did not wait until I returned home; rather I logged in to my local online news group, expecting everyone to be tickled pink.

Surprisingly (for me at least), while there was one message expressing pure delight at the possibilities that could now be available for us all in the north, there was a multitude of replies from youngish users, concerned that their chances of escaping the region would be reduced, and stressing the attraction of the high life in the big wild cities (I mention no names) farther south. Their worries were not allayed by demonstrating the extra choices that could be available, because they fear that Government measures will reduce the support for attending distant universities and colleges. I was amazed at the strength of their feeling, and greatly disappointed.

Not convinced that this was a true local reaction to a momentous day, I caught a cab in Inverness to speed me home. As objectively as possible, I enquired what news there had been in the region while I had been away. We covered 15 miles together, that cabbie and I, and he told me all about planning permissions, those who had appeared in the sheriff's court, and the mystery man who gave away money to Inverness taxi drivers.

I could bear it no longer. What about the Millennium Commission and the University of the Highlands and Islands? Oh, yeah, I did hear something about that, said he, but it won't make any difference to guys like me, will it?

Now that we have college commitment, funding offers and a chief executive, we need to develop a groundswell of local support for the idea to become a successful reality. If it also needs people to carry on answering questions about File Manager, then I'll be there.

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