A long way from a literate nation

User-friendly or not, computers leave most Britons baffled.
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The capacity of today's computers, even the most basic personal computers, has far outstripped the average person's ability to exploit it. Although virtually every organisation uses computers, and almost four million British homes now have them, most are underused. Many organisations use them for little more than word processing, simple databases and financial accounting. In many homes they are used only for playing games.

The industry has done much to make its systems and programs more user- friendly. However, some of the benefits of these can be lost on the newcomer because of the impenetrable prose of the average manual. Software companies should be ashamed that bookshops are crowded with books written and published to explain what ought to be clear in the manuals. Someone facing a computer for the first time, with no more than the manual, can be in for a hard time.

There is a big generation gap. The fairly widespread availability of PCs in schools has helped young people to become familiar with the basics of information technology. A high proportion of those who left school a decade or more ago remain fearful of computers and want little or nothing to do with them.

Even in schools there are problems. To start with, most schools do not have enough computers. However, a more serious problem is that few teachers have themselves received adequate education and training in information technology. School-leavers are developing keyboard skills and a knowledge of basic computing, but few acquire a vision of how IT will shortly revolutionise their personal lives.

When books were the primary source of information, reading was the most basic of skills. But IT is fast becoming an equally important and more readily accessible information source. Britain will soon have a new type of poor - those disadvantaged through their ignorance of IT. The computer- illiterate will be denied access to jobs, information and fast communications.

There is a need to improve teacher training in IT. There is an even greater need to provide basic computer training to everyone who left school with no experience of IT. This older generation will otherwise find itself even more discriminated against than it is at present in the jobs market. It is also desirable that even the economically inactive learn to use what will soon be a basic tool in every household.

Those now entering teacher training will have used computers. Many of those who qualified more than 10 years ago are unlikely to have done so. The use of computers as a working tool is now incorporated into the national curriculum. However, there is a significant difference between teachers who use them only to perform standard routines and those who have a genuine understanding of them as a medium for learning and communication.

Teachers in mid-career receive in-service training to keep them abreast of the latest developments and to update their skills. However, this is delivered locally and it seems likely that standards are inconsistent. Moreover, periods of in-service training are usually too short to enable teachers to immerse themselves in a new technology which needs a new way of thinking.There are weaknesses too in much workplace IT training. Although many workers are sent on computer courses, most employers assume that their staff have a basic familiarity with computers, and the courses tend to be geared to the use of specific applications or programs. The courses tend to be short and intensive.

Although many chief executives send subordinates on computing courses, too often they personally remain computer illiterate. Many started their careers when computers were mainframes operated by specialist teams. As PCs became widespread, they failed to adapt. Many avoid in-house or external courses attended by their staff, for fear of appearing inadequate in the eyes of their subordinates. However, computer familiarisation courses for chief executives are now run in the US and will be launched this autumn in Munich by the software services company Computer Associates.

Saving executive embarrassment comes at a price. These courses cost almost pounds 5,000, although this includes a top-of-the-range laptop loaded with software. During the course they learn to use word-processing, spreadsheets and e-mail.

The economically inactive are unlikely to be willing to pay for computer training, and certainly not an economic rate. However, there are schemes to help them. The Government funds programmes to train the unemployed in computer skills, although many who might benefits from them do not take them up because of techno-phobia.

The fear of computers is widespread. One way to overcome this fear is to use the training facilities of your local library. Three years ago the public library service, with seed-corn funding from the Government, installed PCs in most libraries for the free use of the public.

People with no previous experience can sit down and, with the help of easy-to-follow manuals prepared by education specialists like the National Extension College, learn to use the computers and become familiar with some of the programs in common use. They work at their own pace and without supervision. However, there are too few computers, and the scheme is underpublicised. To develop a genuinely computer-literate society, we have a long way to go.