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Wired-up project aims to reduce the digital divide

An initiative to help bridge the digital divide is being trialled in six deprived areas. Chris Johnston takes a look

An ambitious social experiment will connect more than 12,000 homes in an attempt to find the best ways of reducing the digital divide. The pound;10 million Wired-up Communities project involves six of the most deprived areas in England and builds on an initial scheme in Kensington, Liverpool, that began last year.

Homes will be connected using a range of technologies - some will get new or recycled computers using either dial-up or cable modems, ADSL or wireless, while others will be given set-top boxes to access the Net via digital satellite or terrestrial television.

Schools in the communities will be given devices such as electronic whiteboards and a range of software companies will provide content for use in both homes and schools. Also, the national e-Learning Foundation will help foster local foundations in these areas to provide pupils with ICT devices to use at school and at home.

Michael Wills, the learning and technology minister, said that trialling innovative ways of getting technology to the most deprived sectors of the community was crucial to ensure an "ICT underclass" did not emerge.

"We know that only one in five members of the poorer, DE social groups have used the Internet compared with over two-thirds of professionals, and this is a digital divide that must be overcome," he said.

"Wired-up Communities will test the part new technologies will play in driving up educational standards and increasing job opportunities. We plan to evaluate very closely the impact of the different mixes of technologies used in each community and learning how best to bring about equality of opportunity through ICT." Leeds Metropolitan University researchers will evaluate all seven projects.

The former pit village of Brampton Bierlow near Rotherham is one beneficiary of the initiative. Following the closure of collieries at Brampton and nearby Wath in 1985, the area has suffered severe economic, social and cultural disadvantages. Unemployment is more than twice the national average of 3.7 per cent, one-third of households rely on bnefits and a quarter of adults have low literacy levels.

From September, the "Pit to the Net" scheme will see all 1,500 homes in Brampton get an ONdigital set-top box and the 415 pupils at Brampton Ellis junior and Wath comprehensive schools will be given laptop computers.

Dearne Valley College and other organisations will offer basic Internet skills training to all households to get people using the technology. Granada Learning will also provide six activities for each key stage 2 subject and reformat several GCSE revision modules.

Rotherham council hoped that higher levels of education achievement, better ICT skills, improved employability and more jobs will result. "This is the chance for the whole village to get online," said local MP John Healey.

Meanwhile, 2,500 homes on Blackburn's Whitebirk Estate, in one of worst areas for social deprivation in England, will be given computers with cable connections while five schools nearby will get laptops.

Digitalbrain, a website that lets pupils access learning resources, create online materials and work on projects from home via the Net, will work with the schools.

The company will also work with schools in the BeaconNet project in east Manchester to develop online content and train teachers to publish on the Internet.

By equipping up to 4,500 homes in the BeswickClayton and Bradford wards with PCs and set-top boxes, pupils and parents will be able to access school websites and communicate electronically.

The other Wired-Up Communities sites include:

* Carpenters estate, Newham, east London: 750 homes will be given set-top boxes, ADSL and wireless links;

* Framlington, north of Ipswich: 1,500 homes will be provided with standard telephone lines and wireless technology;

* Alston, Cumbria: 1,200 homes will receive computers, satellite dishes and ADSL connections while digital whiteboards and laptops will complement the secondary school's new RM network.

Four hundred homes have now got a recycled PC and printer in the original project in Kensington, Liverpool, with the remaining 1,600 to be installed by early summer.


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