Home access to learning resources & the digital divide

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Valerie Thomson talks about the Government’s new commitment to eradicating the digital divide and providing universal home access for all pupils. 

For the past six years the e-Learning Foundation has been campaigning and lobbying for recognition of the pernicious effect of the digital divide on schoolchildren in the UK.

Education in our schools is slowly catching up with 21st century technology, and learning resources are increasingly being provided in online format. The downside of this is that the opportunity to participate outside the classroom is restricted to the better off children in our society. Some 30 percent of all schoolchildren cannot go online at home – around 2.5 million schoolchildren – and even more lack a Broadband connection, which is increasingly becoming the minimum standard of connectivity for access to the exciting multimedia online resources that are out there for pupils to benefit from.

At the recent technology in education BETT 2007 expo, the Schools Minister, Jim Knight, acknowledged this growing problem, and committed the Department of Education and Skills to universal home access for all schoolchildren. He has invited industry and the third sector to work closely with the Government to develop a programme that will help achieve this ambitious goal. So ambitious that we would be the first country in the world to eradicate the digital divide for schoolchildren if we can pull it off!

The announcement has triggered a flurry of interest, hopefully from those who can contribute something as well as the inevitable opportunists.

But it is too soon for companies to be thinking about making a ‘mint’ over this new commitment. The priority now is to identify what each of us can put into the pot so that we can achieve a programme that delivers a computer device, an Internet connection and high quality learning content into the home, backed by a school that is prepared to change the way that teaching and learning happens to accommodate developments in independent and
personalised learning.

Right now, computers are changing in style,size and price, and grants are available from organisations such as ours to start building personal access levels across a school in a financially sustainable way. Learning content continues to be produced to a high standard and at increasingly competitive rates. The Internet issue remains a sticky issue but a range of developments are around the corner through mobile telephone, city-wide wireless “umbrellas” and cable and satellite offerings.

So what is really getting in the way? The major barrier remains the leadership of the change that is needed in our schools. The worst thing we could do would be to convert this new Government commitment into a glorified ‘laptop scheme’. An e-learning programme has to offer families a fully integrated package and it is the context that is often the missing, and crucial, link.

While resources are being mustered to support a national roll-out of universal home access, there are many schools who don’t want to wait. They are prepared to take a lead, and drive a programme within their own community to ensure every child can continue their learning at home, supported by the latest learning technologies.

To do this they have a number of financial options: Allow any school portable computers to be made available for pupils to loan for home use in the evenings and weekends. There are over 500,000 portable computers in school but very few are allowed to go home. The reasons why not often do not stand up to scrutiny. Begin a systematic review of replacement machines. When a desktop needs updating, consider increasing the amount of portable computers, they cost the same price nowadays, perhaps also with a view to reducing the number of computer suites, so that IT is available when and where it is needed in the classroom, rather than herding groups of pupils around the school. Establish an e-Learning Foundation programme with an aim of every child having access to a portable device that they can tailor to their own learning needs, use in the classroom where directed by the teacher and then continue to use to support their learning outside the classroom. For as little as £10 a month per pupil a school can establish a financially sustainable programme, involving a combination of e- Learning Foundation grants, parental contributions and school support.

This is a critical moment in the development of e-learning in schools. We have the opportunity to lead the world in terms of universal home access. The measure of our success will depend on the support we can muster from commercial companies, Government bodies, third sector organisations and individuals prepared to contribute, so that all schoolchildren in this country get to participate in a 21st century education on far more of a level footing than has been the case for the past 50 years.

Valerie Thompson is Chief Executive of the e-Learning Foundation.

This article is taken from e-Learning Today

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