Who'll enrol at e(litist)-university?

May 26, 2000

Far more students need access to the internet if it is to drive education, argues Anthony Hesketh

There are 300 million internet users across the globe. One million new web pages were created in 1998 with 80,000 new users coming online every day to view 3.6 million sites on the web.

It is not so much the size of the new digital revolution that has taken everybody's breath away, more the speed at which the internet has entered our daily lives. Or at least this is what the government would have us believe, transfixed as it is by the growth of the "digital economy".

One of new Labour's ambitious digital proposals is to set up an e-university - a partnership between private companies and established public universities. The idea rests on two premises: that students have access to the internet and that they are inclined to use it for education. But do they and are they?

These were the questions we tried to answer in research exploring the impact of the internet on applications from 17 and 18-year-olds to higher education. Unfortunately, our results are a little depressing for fans of the new technology. The so-called digital divide - the gap between the "computer haves", and the "computer have-nots" - is growing. True, nearly all the 1,486 of the Y13 pupils considering university in our survey had access to the internet. The government's National Grid for Learning, which aims to ensure access to the internet in all schools and colleges by 2002, appears to be well on schedule.

But further analysis revealed that while half the sample can access the internet at home, a third can do so only via their school, college and/or a local access point, such as a cyber cafe, or at a friend's house. Rather worryingly, 5 per cent of the sample claimed they had no access to the internet. This sensitised us to the dichotomy between alleged and real access.

Those with real access have a PC at home, while those with quasi-access have to wait their turn at school or college. We heard a number of students outline how they do not understand how to access the internet, or describe a level of demand for computer use that derails most attempts to get online.

Real differences became apparent when we examined the relationship between internet access and social background.

Those with a PC at home are twice as likely as other groups to use email and are most likely to use the internet to find out information about higher education. In our sample, those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are three times more likely than those from poorer backgrounds to have a PC at home. The digital divide is also a social divide.

Our second finding has a positive edge. The proportion of students now visiting university internet sites has almost doubled from 33 per cent to 60 per cent in 12 months. But higher education has yet to provide websites with information students actually want. They are simply not rising to the digital challenge.

And in the future? The government needs to rethink the role of the internet in delivering information about higher education. The Learning Grid is a start, but nothing more. We must be certain that we do not let the technology that has the power to empower us all increase the problems of social exclusion.

Anthony Hesketh is a lecturer at Lancaster University Management School.

National Learning Grid: www.ngfl.gov.uk/ngfl/index.html.

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