July 2006


[Digital Nations in the making: Update Pages 20-23 – the Digital Divide].

This month has seen the announcement of the ten successful proposals for the Digital Challenge, put forward by Councils for creating “wired up communities” to tackle social exclusion and disadvantage. The finalists selected by the UK Department of Communities and Local Government from 79 applicants will now each receive £120,000 to strengthen and extend their proposals as they bid for the final prize: £7 million for the winners to implement their plan.

The scheme is reminiscent of the Canadian Smart Communities Programme launched in 2000, which I describe in my Digital nations in the making book. That however was better funded (CAN$60 million), required matching monies and had 12 winners not just one!

There are some interesting and imaginative Digital Challenge proposals and I’m hoping that some at any rate will go ahead in a limited form at least, even if they aren’t winners. The scheme has one great advantage as it maintains the focus on the digital divide. This is important as the gap between those skilled up for the networked world and those who are not, is if anything growing. 

This is what is starting to be called Digital Divide 2.0, although the meaning of the term is evolving and by no means determined. In the new interconnected and globally competitive world, which the web has created, it’s not enough to have access to the physical infrastructure with a modem and computer. You need to be tech-savvy, applying critical skills at the same time as using your IT skills. You need to be able to source the right information, retrieve your data and contacts, manipulate figures, log in at a wi-fi hot spot, share files, use a SMS texting service, collaborate remotely with a team, contribute to a discussion forum, find partners. The list reminds me of a 1998 schedule of skills I compiled for a 21st century model ACL tutor, which is included in Digital nations in the making.

The final selection for the Digital Challenge winner will be difficult to make, but for my money it would be based on an assessment of the applicants’ ability, through the actions proposed, to help promote the mix of technical and critical skills noted above and to deliver on what is promised. For this smart and focused planning and partnerships with community based organisations are essential.

As a Mancunian I’m glad to see that the Manchester City Region has been included in the final ten. The application was submitted by Manchester’s Digital Development Agency with neighbouring councils, Tameside and Salford. This joining up can strengthen the bid, provided there is an indication of a well coordinated approach, which crosses municipal boundaries and that there is potential for wider replication. The WEA’s Community Grid for Learning has been active since 2002 in this area of work through its learners.org.uk portal and will certainly be supporting the bid.

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This is a test item which Fred Garnett from Becta and Ian Harford are setting up to explore ways of using a blog to promote an active debate about how ILT in community based learning can best be supported. Each week we will be taking some of the recommendations made in Ian’s book, Digital nations in the making and asking people to contribute their thoughts and ideas. At the end of each week we will pull together the threads and publish these here in an edited version. Watch this space for more details.

There’s been plenty going on here in the northwest over the last fortnight, including two popular conferences I’ve attended. The Quality Improvement Agency Skills for Life Quality Initiative event at Wigan provided a good introduction to the Whole Organisation Approach to Quality Improvement. An interesting worskshop on e-learning led by Susanne Johnson left me with the strong feeling that with some training and support, tutors could make far more use of new technologies in their teaching.

There’s a big change taking place now with the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) being taken over by the LSC and Skills for Life will be a key area. Talking to Sally Thomas, Education Manager at HM Prison Risley, I was impressed by her grasp of how online materials on activities like reading bus timetables, using ATM cash dispensers, food budgetting and preparing a simple CV would be a boon for many offenders approaching release. There are some interesting opportunities here, especially if the DfES is able to find ways of providing internet access for offenders inside prisons. This is already the case in other countries and is being advocated by CILIP and others.

The other event was the JISC Northwest Regional Support Centre’s annual conference at Kendal. John Stone the new CEO of the Learning and Skills Network talked of his experience of e-Learning as Principal of Ealing and Hammersmith College and had some comments about the role of the LSN. He also picked up Bill Rammell’s recent theme about the need for combination and cross sectoral partnerships – which I suggest in my Digital nations in the making book is a hallmark characteristic of the e-enabled organisation.

[DNiM Update Page 3-4 – Learning and Skills Development Agency].

The other keynote speaker was Paul Gerhardt who gave a fascinating account of the BBC’s new Creative Archive scheme. A projected 10 year programme, it will be releasing 1000 hours of BBC film and audio material every year, which can be used for non-profit activities and by educational bodies free of charge. This is a great use of the tax payers’ money for opening up public access rights in the digital age and potentially a huge boost for any organisation seeking to enhance its online learning offer. There’s some limited material already available for which you need to obtain a license.

When I had my first experience of the internet in the pre-Windows, pre-GUI days, I used to marvel at how I could navigate through a series of menus and submenus to arrive several minutes later at the details of a book held in a distant library. Like everyone else though I now expect more – higher speeds, rapid returns from searches, quicker rendering graphics and a good tracking and response system from the provider when I have a query or problem.

But delivering this requires investment and this has brought to a head in the US the issue of net neutrality. It will follow in the UK before long. As more bandwidth hungry content like video is supplied by the likes of Google and YouTube, a Congressional Committee is debating if telecoms companies – which own the internet infrastructure – should be allowed to apply differential charges for delivering faster or more consistent services. This is a highly charged discussion (see photo of a video still), with many people arguing, along with web founder Tim Berners Lee and companies like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! that this would violate a fundamental feature of the internet – open access. Ultimately though someone has to pay for the costs and the issue will not go away.
Still from YouTube video.

Generally you get what you pay for, but two stories this last week have made me realise this does not always apply! The first broke at the weekend when the New York Times carried an article about a blogger, Vincent Ferrrari, who had spent 21 minutes trying to close down his AOL email account. An everyday story maybe, but this was different because the whole 5 minutes conversation with a highly uncooperative telesales rep had been recorded and was distributed on Vincent’s blog. The site was bombarded with 700,000 hits and when I looked this evening was still temporarily down.

The second story concerns me and started the day after the New York Times article. To my consternation I logged out of my WordPress blog after posting a story and then was locked out, though I tried every permutation of username and password I could think of plus a request for a new password to get back in.

Having slept on it, I sent an urgent email to a wordpress email support address I found, but feared that at best I would have to wait until the National holiday and Independence Day celebrations were over. But no, I had a reply from Podz in under 24 hours! What did he say? That he could help; that he was as stumped as me; that he had checked all the information and tested my details; that I should now try to log in again and if I still had problems I should contact him again. And he apologised. That’s what I call “quality of service”, so thanks to Podz and WordPress (who provide me with a free service). AOL (who didn’t want to stop charging Vincent) and a lot of other companies could learn a thing or two from them.

And yes I forgot – it all worked fine and now I’m back blogging again!

Mural in East Didsbury, Manchester of the England world Cup team with shopkeeper Mr Malik and Transforming blogger Ian Harford - taken just before kick-off against Portugal.

England lost in the penalty shoot-out with Portugal this evening, but Manchester shopkeeper Mr Malik and his son Andy have scored a big hit with their Gawsworth Avenue shop-front mural of the England team.

“I’d seen this big picture on a building down in central Manchester some years ago and thought why not have some artwork here to support the team and show people where the action is in East Didsbury”, Andy told me.

So he teamed up with local artist Steve Proudfoot, who has his own website, to get this 7 feet high picture of the team painted on their shop front window. The photo (above) shows Mr Malik (with the hat) and Transforming blogger, Ian Harford beside the mural. It’s good for Steve too as it helps to advertise his work and handmade cards, which are on sale at the shop.

I was delighted to see this, as it reminded me that I have a competition, launched on this blog site for the best photos of adverts or artwork with an IT or adult learning theme. This is linked to my new book, Digital nations in the making, which is about adult education in Canada, the US and the UK. Details of the competition are in my posting of 18 May and I’m still looking for more entries! Send them to me or bring them in to Mr Malik’s shop – where I have done a lot of photocopying for the book – and we’ll make sure they are published.