Network: We'll all end up paying for computer illiteracy

At this rate it will take 20 years to wire up the rest of our schools
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The Independent Culture
ACCORDING TO a recent survey of Internet access, only 18 per cent of UK schools have even one computer with a Net connection. This compares with 38 per cent in Germany, 35 per cent in France and staggering 66 per cent in the United States. It is clear that we are falling behind in the cyberspace race.

Since it's taken five years to wire up just 18 per cent of our schools, at this rate it will take 20 years to connect the rest. That means that not one but several generations will leave school clueless about information technology. To make the matters worse, the survey indicates that 80 per cent of computer equipment is located in only 20 per cent of schools. So not just Internet skills, but general computer skills, are failing to be taught. It is impossible to achieve any meaningful IT education if there are 30 students per computer in some schools, and no computers at all in others. We are creating a two-tier society, with a techno-elite coming from the well equipped schools, and the rest forming an unemployable underclass.

The Department of Education doesn't seem worried. I recently heard someone from the DoE claim that "there will be plenty of jobs for non-computer- literate people, and besides, we don't want to build up the expectations of kids who will then go to work as cashiers or sales assistants". The fact that the work of cashiers in supermarkets is fast going out of the window, thanks to self-scanning systems being piloted in Safeway, Sainsbury's and other retailers, is obviously lost on the DoE. Such an attitude shows that the class system is alive and kicking under New Labour, but it also demonstrates a lack of strategic human resource planning that will cost all of us dear in the future, when we have to pay unemployment benefit to all those kids.

Within the next three to five years, sales assistants' work will be automated by self-check-outs, bank tellers will be replaced by increasingly functional ATMs and online banking, and travel agents will replaced by online booking. These new ways of automating services will create lots of new jobs, but jobs that will require solid computer competence. For example, sales assistants will be replaced by online call centre operators, but they will have to be able to work with the Web and a multitude of other software applications. Will we be forced to employ better educated Dutch, French and German school- leavers to deal with the increasingly complex work in the service sector?

Allowing schools to go without computers is bad housekeeping for tomorrow. It's also outrageous that so much potential talent is being lost owing to the lack of access. Great programmers and system designers come from many walks of life, often from underprivileged backgrounds. We can ill afford to miss out on those kids who may turn out to be great programmers, but at the moment can't even get near a computer.

There are no easy answers to this problem. According to the schools that do have computers for pupils, a bill of around pounds 1,500 per pupil comes with wiring up a school. Schools must budget for system support, network support, Internet subscription, upgrades, teacher training, etc. This is the result of squeezing expensive business computing solutions into the classroom. The unfortunate truth is that most schools can afford to spend only about pounds 85 per pupil on information technology. Since the gap between the costs and the available funds is unbridgeable, we must look for other ways of achieving computer education for every child in the UK.

Some companies have tackled the problem of lack of suitability of business solutions in a school environment. Pavilion Internet is one, having developed a school-environment server for the Brighton area. Called Nina, it takes into consideration the lack of technical knowledge in schools and provides a cheap solution with remote support, low-cost maintenance and all the special requirements teachers need, such as ability to monitor children's online activity and the blocking of unsuitable websites. But Nina is not free, and therefore is a solution for some schools but not for all.

The bottom line is that without a concentrated volunteer effort, we are not going to solve the problem. There are more than 1.2 million computer professionals in the UK. If some of us managed to find time to contribute to a local initiative, the task of getting more kids access to a computer and the Internet should be achievable over two or three years.

In the US, General Colin Powell has led the charge with the Alliance for Youth (www. americaspromise.org), a scheme to build up volunteer support for disadvantaged schools and neighbourhoods. Some, such as the National Urban Technology Center (www.urbantech.org), help inner-city kids to build their own websites and supervises their programming efforts. One centre I recently visited in San Francisco offers free after-school computer access to local children, supervised by retired teachers and computer professionals on a rota basis (www.child.net). There is also Chalk (Communities in Harmony Advocating for Learning and Kids), originally sponsored by Apple Computer but now fully staffed with teenage volunteers who help their peers to get into computing. The teenagers can earn pocket money providing PC support for their neighbourhood, but also get a first step on the career ladder through internships with local companies.

The Internet was created and developed by many people contributing their time without pay. Now the time has come to do it again, to help all of those children who are not fortunate enough to live in the catchment area of a wired school.

E-mail me with your ideas on providing kids with computing skill, at eva@never.com

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