UK plc can't afford a generation of information have nots

By Chris Yapp

Two issues dominate discussion about the Information Society: how to develop a globally competitive workforce, and how to ensure 'have nots' aren't excluded. We can have both if we use IT for lifelong learning, says Chris Yapp, Managing Consultant, ICL Lifelong Learning. He wrote this article in 1997.

Only a generation ago, a single set of skills acquired by the age of thirty or so would have carried most people through to retirement.

Today we recognise the need to retrain people at all levels of the workforce in order to maintain the globally competitiveness of our firms, and also enable individuals to cope with increases in self-employment, part-time and casual working.

What this adds up to is a changing lifestyle for individuals, away from a job for life to a search for lifetime employability. But is the 'Lifelong learning for all' which we need merely a slogan, or could we actually achieve it? Furthermore, is it actually desirable and affordable ?

Lifelong learning for all implies a number of issues that need to be addressed:

It is here that the technologies of the so-called information superhighway come into the picture. We cannot afford to retrain the whole workforce maybe three or four times through adult life using current models. The promise of the technology is the ability to re-engineer existing expenditure to deliver more effective education and training.

But this leads us to a 'cultural' problem in the UK. Surely, IT is for white male anorak nerds of 25 and under? If you're over 40 you're effectively brain dead and will never adjust. If we take the last two sentences seriously, then we will create a serious problem for all of us.

Experience in South Bristol, and elsewhere, shows we do not have to be so gloomy. We can avoid a society of information haves and have nots and in the process provide people with the skills they need for employability, and which UK PLC needs for internatational competitiveness.

Over two years ago ICL started working with the South Bristol Learning Network on the development of Cyberskills. Over that time we have trained people from 17 to 84 in a variety of technologies including CD-ROMs, the Internet/World Wide Web and Video Conferencing. These people have covered all social and economic classes, abilities and public, private and voluntary sectors. We now have a dozen Cyberskills centres in the UK and our first US export.

What is significant is that the materials for the sessions were developed and delivered by previously unemployed people with no experience of IT, some of whom were in their 50's. If sensitively handled age, gender, and ability prove to be limited obstacles to the use of new technologies. With school children, even where education is 'uncool' it is OK to be good at sport and IT.

In our educational trials we are seeing many children engage with learning through IT when traditional classroom practise has been unsuccessful. With adults, even if they 'failed' at school, they didn't fail at IT because it wasn't around. We have seen many examples where IT has been a catalyst to re-engage adults with the learning process and raised their perception of their own capabilities. This has led us to an approach that we call "People First, Technology Second".

Our experience to date suggest that there is a great appetite in the UK for learning in all sectors of our society. The goal is to harness this energy for economic and social well-being.

Looking at international comparisons of UK performance in educational and training performance, the general picture is that the UK's top 10-15% of education and training is globally competitive, but what dogs our competitiveness is the bottom quartile in particular. In the Department for Education and Employment's Lifetime learning consultation document there is an estimate that the failure to achieve basic skills costs the UK £5bn.

Social inclusion and competitiveness are often portrayed as incompatible. I believe that globalisation and technical change make this a damaging fallacy. We live in an era where the old rules don't work anymore. Too much of the focus in the debate is around technology and not the people and the society we wish to build. If we use our brains to address the real issues, I have no doubt that British ingenuity is up to the task of building a competitive and more inclusive society .

Success stories from South Bristol Learning Network
Opportunities for work and learning, by Maggie Holgate
The Cyberskills Association

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