Technology centres run by community and voluntary organisations are more effective in attracting socially excluded and digitally excluded users, according to research published by the key funder of the UK online centres programme, the Department for Education and Skills.
The researchers - Jeremy Wyatt and his team at Hall Aitken - recommend that "preserving the community and voluntary sector role should be recognised as a key policy goal"... which is important at a time when many centres face an uncertain future as initial funding ends.
The researchers add that: "Whatever the future funding regime, more funding should be targeted on the successful informal services that many UK online centres have developed to attract excluded groups and those not involved in learning"... which may not square with the Government's push towards reliance on mainly formal computer and Internet courses often more favoured by public sector and college-based centres.
The findings are a summary of the final evaluation of the Capital Modernisation Fund (CMF) funded UK online centres. Researchers found:
• Most (over 60%) UK online centre users were from the programme’s six socially excluded target groups and even more (74%) were “digitally excluded” by lack of access to computers and the Internet and/or lack of skills. Many people had computers at home that they did not know how to use. We did not identify significant deadweight (activity that would have happened anyway) But there was leakage – 32% of users were not in the stated target group because they were under 16 or were not ‘digitally excluded’.
• Centre users liked their experiences at the centres. They recommended the centres to others, most did what they expected to do, and many achieved more than they expected.
• Most respondents (84%) to the initial user survey said that they learned new skills they would not have gained otherwise. Six months on, users’ experience with various ICT activities had improved markedly.
• Half of all users who stayed at centres for six months or more went on to do learning that earned them a certificate (whether externally verified or not). Many progressed to college or learndirect courses. The longer users stayed at a centre the more likely they were to progress. And staff advice and encouragement resulted in more people progressing to further learning.
• Almost all users said that their confidence had improved to some extent since coming to the centre. For many this was a significant result. Meeting new people was a major benefit for nearly half of all users.
• Community and Voluntary sector centres attracted higher proportions of socially excluded and digitally excluded users. They also used a much greater number of volunteers – often people who had first been users. They played an important role in engaging the more excluded groups.
This final conclusion should be music to the DirectSupport consortium (declaration of interest, I'm part of it) funded by DfES to work with community and voluntary sector centres.
The report recommendations in full are:
"The future focus for UK online centres should be on the areas where the programme has succeeded so far – encouraging interest and developing skills.
"Preserving the Community and Voluntary sector role should be recognised as a key policy goal.
"Whatever the future funding regime, more funding should be targeted on the successful informal services that many UK online centres have developed to attract excluded groups and those not involved in learning.
"That the continued success of UK online centres in reaching the more excluded groups and helping them to progress should be carefully monitored.
"Building further links between UK online centres and both colleges and learndirect to help build on the success so far."
The UK Government launched the UK online centre brand in summer 2000. In November 2003, DfES announced that the target of 6,000 UK online centres had been met. Of these, over a third were in libraries and a fifth were ‘branded centres’ in the Community, Voluntary, Private and Further Education sectors. The rest were CMF funded centres.
The UK online centres were to “bridge the gap between those in society who have access to ICT and are able to use it competently and confidently and those who do not.” The initiative focused on adults in disadvantaged communities, with six specified target groups: unemployed people; single parents; people with disabilities, minority ethnic groups; those with basic skills needs; and people over the age of sixty who had not learnt for some time.
By March 2003 3,052 CMF funded UK online centres were open using £199M of capital funds. The New Opportunities Fund (NOF) also granted £69M revenue funding to UK online centres in England through its Community Access to Lifelong Learning (CALL) programme.
Thanks to Martin Dudley for alerting me to publication of the report. It is slim, and published on December 23 2003 without announcement as far as I can see.