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The whole wired world can beat the fear of failure;Further Education

I SEE there's panic again about literacy standards. It's understandable. Aren't we off to the theatre tonight to see The Night Before Christmas, the flyer for which promises "a hilarious, viscious (sic) and scabrous play about a Christmas elf who falls off Santa's slay" - with a few rogue apostrophes to add a festive touch.

So, yes, I know the problems we have with literacy. But learning is undergoing nothing short of a revolution, and both facilitator and learner are being swept into cyberspace. Those who sit contemplating the misuse of the apostrophe are in for An Awfully Big Adventure.

Of course we must be concerned about literacy levels. The ability to communicate well is a powerful tool. Unfortunately, despite the best intentions of educators that ability tends to come easiest to those who already have a head start in life.

If your experience of education is a positive one, the concept of lifelong learning is attractive and easily pursued. But what if you left school feeling a failure?

It's argued that there are always second chances, and inclusion is the buzz word. But just how much courage does it take to stick your neck out and risk another crack at learning?

Laura, recently enrolled on an adult business course with us, confided to a tutor that it took her 15 years to walk through the doors of college to ask for advice about learning.

Tina is a 20-year-old lone parent. She mucked around at school and couldn't wait to get away. Having a baby has changed her outlook. Now she wants to do her best for her child, and she knows that means training for a good job. But the idea of going back to school, she says, makes her feel sick.

Tina is a perfect example of the findings of a recent Participation Mapping Project, commissioned by Tayside's further education colleges: we're simply not reaching sole mothers like her.

The frustrating thing is that further education is designed for people like Laura and Tina - if only they and others like them can make it through the door and take that first step.

Despite good press, community links and open days, it's still difficult to reach those who would benefit most from education and training. What more can we do, we ask, short of pressganging learners?

The ambitious Scottish Learning Network addresses just these problems and kills two birds - the forbidding educational institution and the fear of public failure - with one stone. Learning can take place any time, anywhere: in the pub, a community centre, the workplace or the home. The network needs only a student and a tutor, and both have the whole wired world at their fingertips.

For this to work, we need ICT literate learners and tutors. I believe we can have the former. On a day-to-day basis I find the students I meet have sound communication technology skills. Those without these skills believe ICT offers a non-threatening, fun way to learn, and they demonstrate an enormous willingness to master the skills. Our Computing for the Terrified courses run six days a week and are jam-packed each session.

As for tutors, the Scottish Learning Network plans to have 1,000 tutors trained in providing online support by the end of this year. I am one of them, currently completing a certificate in providing on-line support. A professional development award is planned for the near future. Further education is built round student-centred learning. As lecturers, we already inhabit the facilitator's role comfortably and we will find online learning a natural, if radical, progression.

The road ahead, however, is fraught with danger. We cannot afford to get this initiative wrong. We must ensure our learners have easy access to user-friendly machines and quality courseware.

We cannot embark on this course half-heartedly, with a make do and mend philosophy. This means spending money, redirecting funds, now. Employers are likely to be quick to invest in on-line training for their staff and this will no doubt give a huge boost to resources, but we cannot afford to lag behind.

Just think. We put a man on the moon and brought him back again using hardware that pre-dated the ZX Spectrum. With the sophisticated technology we have now, we have the potential to provide world-class education and training wherever and whenever it's needed. Inclusion and empowerment? Sorted!

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College

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