Byline: NEIL SELWYN & STEPHEN GORARD
WE are constantly being told that Wales is positioning itself to become a competitive "e-nation" in the 21st Century knowledge economy.
Visions abound in newspapers of how information and communications technology (ICT) looks set to change all aspects of Welsh society - from the economic promise of e-commerce and e-tailing to the revitalisation of Welsh language, culture and tourism via the world-wide reach of the internet.
The National Assembly has promised recently that Cymru Ar-lein (Wales On-line) will be a place where everyone has the opportunities, skills and understanding to participate in the information age.
At the heart of this goal lies a commitment to make Wales a "learning country" based around innovative and effective use of ICT in all areas of education - from nursery classes to learning by the retired and elderly.
ICT is, therefore, at the heart of the current educational agenda to transform Wales into a country of "lifelong" and "lifewide" learners.
But what does such rhetoric mean in practice? The Assembly's recent Learning Country white paper set out a range of ICT-based initiatives being implemented in Wales. Hundreds of millions of pounds are being spent on installing computer hardware and internet connections into schools, colleges, libraries, museums and other community-based "ICT learning centres".
Teachers are being trained to use new technologies and ICT-based schemes such as learndirect and the Wales Digital College are being set up to allow adults to learn on an "anytime, anyplace, anypace" basis.
The drive towards ICT-based education makes perfect sense in this fast changing, globalised world where everyone is online. Most people would go along with the Assembly's sentiment that the future of education in Wales lies with ICT.
But the realities of Wales at the end of 2001 should make us think again about what education in the information age is actually all about.
Just over a third of the adult population have not engaged in any form of learning since finishing compulsory education. Over half of the adult population do not have access to a computer or the internet at home. Around 10pc of the population do not even have access to a shared telephone - let alone the online learning resources that the Assembly and others are promising.
This is less to do with newly-formed "digital divides" than deep-rooted social inequalities that have been at the heart of many of the educational problems in Wales over the past 50 years.
There is a danger that ICT and the range of e-learning initiatives …