Home Access - Who Benefits? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Graham Brown-Martin on Sunday, 28 September 2008

In January 2007, the Rt Hon Jim Knight, Minister of State for Schools announced ‘The Home Access Taskforce’, charged to consider and advise on the ways in which home access to technology can be delivered for all school-aged children in England. It was said that more than one million children did not have computer technology or access to the internet in the home, thus perpetuating the social and digital divide that disadvantages many children.

Nobody should argue against the aim of bridging digital divides.

It was reported by the BBC that the creation of the taskforce followed an initial internal study the previous  autumn by Intel, RM and Dell which concluded, ‘universal access could be made possible between government, private and voluntary sectors.’
Over the past 18 months the project came under the control of Becta and the taskforce worked diligently to define a series of consultation papers, which includes draft statements of requirements and functional expectations, all prepared in consultation with industry – albeit those who have traditionally supplied the schools and education market, eyeing up a £300m budget.  Membership of the "Taskforce" bears little difference to a traditional cartel of suppliers to the UK education sector and as if the consumer electronics and mobile handset industry never existed./filthy-lucre.gif
By defining minimum requirements using recognised open industry standards, the documents suggest that they are intended to promote and stimulate innovation by not pre- determining specific technical solutions. 
But let’s be honest here, it’s about cut-down laptops, traditional office applications,1990s-style learning platforms and heavily filtered web browsing. Fun for all the family because rather than being a personalised learning activity there’s even a reference to a ‘round table usage activity’ where the screen should be at least 13.3” – even for mobile devices.
OK, fair enough. A million families get a laptop running some flavour of Windows or Linux with connectivity to the internet, but is this really a 21st century solution?
Let’s take a look at what some of these families may already have or will have in the near future that will make their underpowered laptop appear somewhat limp. I’m in debt to my mentor Chris Deering, former chairman of Sony Europe, for sharing some of this data and insight.

The video game industry will pass the $50bn mark this year bringing with it enormous economies of scale that are permeating across many social and cultural groups, far beyond traditional PCs. Significant trends over the next few years show that gaming culture will spread well beyond traditional entertainment applications.
Games across all age groups, particularly those targeted at 6-10 year olds, families and ‘grey gamers’, are increasing. All gaming and mobile devices will feature ubiquitous Wi-Fi capability for anywhere gaming. Hi-Definition enabled homes will spawn combi-console/set-top box/IPTV capability. Driven by sports and popular entertainment this is happening in less affluent households in the same way that satellite television took off in the 1990s. Voice recognition, GPS, location-aware servers and applications arrive at the same time as we see increasingly massive online worlds and cinema-real ‘thinking and speaking’ virtual characters.
Within the next four years Hi-Def enabled homes in Europe will increase to 37 million, 3G mobile subscribers to 60 million in the UK. The number of worldwide installed base of gaming devices will grow to 150 million for Nintendo DS, 80 million for Wii and 70 million for Sony’s PS3 and PSP. Other handheld entertainment devices are expected to touch 1 billion.
In addition to the currently well-known players in this sector there will be new entrants adapting to an always-on, stream-anywhere environment including mobile network operators, handset manufacturers, TV networks, cable and satellite operators.
Apple has demonstrated with its latest iPhone how the mobile phone and the PC will become the same device.

The number of people using handheld social networks grew from 30 million in 2006 to 55 million in just one year. By 2012 this number will be between 400 million and 800 million, primarily in the 18-35 age group with an almost equal number of women and men. By 2010 around 400 million phones will have built-in GPS.
A quote from Cisco Systems is apposite here, ‘by 2012, a mere 20 US homes will consume more digital traffic than the entire US Internet Backbone in 1995, and video will be 90% of the traffic.

I do not doubt the aims of the Home Access Programme but I’m wondering if, like the ‘Learning Platforms’ initiative before, we will end up with redundant technologies locked in the past while the rest of the world has raced ahead – and in doing this won’t we be simply creating another digital divide? 

First published in the Assignment Report (ISSN 1748-2402), September 2008.
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