Carol Vorderman's Internet Column: The Have Nets and Have Nots; MISSION TO BRIDGE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Article excerpt

THE old adage that knowledge is power has never been more true - and today we are looking to the net to provide it.

But when it comes to computer skills and net access, we are still a nation of haves and have-nots. There's a digital divide - and your age and income often determine which side of it you are on.

A Department of Education and Employment survey reveals that only seven per cent of poorer Britons have internet access at home.

Among the over-55s, only one in 12 uses a computer daily - and just six per cent of over-65s have ever used the internet or received an email.

Younger and better-off people are much more likely to be computer-literate. But with only one in four of all UK adults using a computer on a daily basis the Government's ambitious target of internet access for all within five years still seems a long way off.

"It is unacceptable to have a digital divide," says Michael Wills, Minister for Learning and Technology. "The Government has to raise public consciousness and spread awareness of the benefits of these technologies.

"It is vital to be IT-aware these days, as 90 per cent of all jobs now involve some interactivity with computers."

That's why the Government is funding UK OnlineComputer Training, a new pounds 25-million scheme to give people on benefits and their dependents computer skills. About 400 organisations are involved - call 0800 100 900 for information.

Another initiative is Citizens Online (www.citizensonline.org.uk), an independent charity set up to research the issues and find ways to ensure that everybody can share in the benefits of the technological revolution.

Founder Mark Adams says: "We're asking questions about the digital divide. Is it real? And if so, how do we address it? I suspect that the debate will show that, yes, there are tangible divides - geography, age, gender - but mainly it's a difference in attitude between those who will commit to new things, like the internet, and those who are frightened by it."

Citizens Online's first step is a conference in London on May 23, when experts from the Government, industry and academia will discuss the questions and the challenges. Then it hopes to raise pounds 12 million in five years to fund, sponsor and direct projects.

Mark says: "Our job is finished when nobody's frightened by technology, when everyone has an email address and is comfortable using it."

One of the early findings is that all that sitting and staring at our screens has a positive knock-on effect.

"The more virtual, the more real," says Professor Steve Woolgar, one of the speakers for the conference.

"The more we put virtual art museums online, the more people actually go to real art museums. The virtual world doesn't act as a substitute for the stuff we do already. It adds to it, and gets us doing more than we did before."

That applies to adults just as much as net-crazy youngsters, and computers are sure to loom large during Adult Learners Week next week.

Here we talk to three award-winners who until recently were all on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Edith's disc drive

The examiner

EDITH DAWSON may be 89 but there's no stopping her. She still works as a dance examiner and is also a qualified teacher with the English Bridge Union.

A few years ago, she was so impressed to see her nephew using a computer to work on musical scores she thought she'd give it a go. …