[Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 11 – Mobile phones; Pages 61-65 – Models for ACL; Page 109 – Broadband penetration].

Some intensive remedial work and waste bin filling with my filing systems and old reports – in search of the paperless office – has got me reflecting on the state of adult education in the Information Society in Britain today.

I wrote in Digital Nations in the making: “So pervasive is the web that suddenly there is no corner of the world, no feature of our society that can avoid its reach and impact. Ignoring it is perilous”. So just how are managers, staff and tutors responding to the challenge? A close embrace or reluctant dabble?

No one can deny that at the start of the enrolment period for classes, things are not looking that easy. Changing policies and funding cutbacks have led to the slashing of courses in colleges, libraries and centres. The cost to students has risen by up to 25%. Fees of £5 or £6 a session to attend a weekly evening class – which still involve a substantial subsidy – may not seem so unreasonable compared with a ticket to a film or theatre, but are certain to lead to adult learners dropping away. We’ll see how big a drop, when enrolment data starts to be returned and analysed.

The writing has been on the wall for some time of course and you can always press your case for more funding with your local MP. But why should adult education be different from other sectors? Why should it receive special protection if it is not seen as a priority in a globalising Information Society where everyone is being affected?

Campaigning is fine but don’t take your eye off the key issue. How can you sustain a business, any business in a changing world, where traditional revenue sources reduce or dry up and people want different services or the same services delivered in a different way or at a lower price?

And it is changing – fast. Telecommunications and the world wide web, offering always on connectivity to anywhere on the planet is the principal cause. My faded 2000 powerpoint presentation to a marketing group spoke of a world total of 440 million email users. Now it is over 1.1 billion.

Even more significantly worldwide mobile phone connections (with text messaging and much more) have just hit 2.5 billion, up from one billion in only 3 years. According to The Register (8 September 2006) the majority of the monthly 40 million new connections are coming from developing or emerging countries like China, India, Russia, Pakistan and  Brazil.

In 1999 e-commerce – buying and selling items online – was little more than a gleam in the future for most, but according to an Observer Business Section report (10 September 2006) it had risen by 2005 to £19.2 billion. In another 5 years Forrester Research predict 80 % of us will be buying online.

Broadband take up (enabling always on connectivity) is further evidence of sweeping change. In 2001 only 100,000 households had broadband, but by 2006 ONS Statistics show this had risen to 9.6 million.

What does this all mean? In short it means that the world is going online! The impact can be seen all around us – with music (i-pods) and video (U-Tube), with advertising and insurance, with travel and newspapers and with the 4 large Bs – banking, betting, bidding and bookselling. And some strange things are happening – like the Telegraph and ITN new alliance reported in the Observer (10 September 2006) – as companies restructure their activities and redefine their services.

Is education generally and adult education different from these private sector areas? Yes of course it is, but technology can still help us shape a stronger future if we start to think creatively about solutions. Things are starting to stir but we need to be doing more faster. I’ll be taking these issues up in my next posting. In the meantime all comments are welcome.

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