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IT @ Home

Electronic Arts in Children’s Homes

Computers are now a standard facility in Middlesbrough Children’s Homes so that ‘young people looked after’ have access to them. Staff working in Homes have basic computer skills and are encouraged to use them to work and play with the young people.

IT @ Home allowed residents and staff to work with a range of artists who specialise in digital media, Andrew Oldham, a writer who also uses audio recording and digital photography, Dominic Nelson Ashley, a digital musician/D.J. and John Shingleton, a web designer/digital artist. Each artist worked for five sessions in each of the three homes.

Middlesbrough Children Looked After Services provided a comprehensive introduction into working with Children in Care for the artists, which the artists all stated was a vital element in helping them to work with the young people.

CIRA (Community Informatics Research Applications) provided technical support, software, an evaluation of the technical aspects of the project and a training course for staff involved. Unfortunately the methodology of the training introduced a two-tier element to the project (staff were doing one thing, residents another) and this did not encourage them to work together.

It is therefore recommended that such training is accessed by both residents and staff, as a Learning-Together package.

The young people produced a CD Rom that included digitally manipulated photographs, some simple animations, with words and images combined and short sequences of digitally created music.

The material from the C.D Rom was also installed in the University of Teesside’s Virtual Reality collaborative model, ‘Creative Communities’, and the young people were able to visit the Hemispherium to view and marvel at this virtual, three-dimensional manifestation of their work.

A second phase of the project developed out of discussions between the artists, the children, CIRA and the Children Looked After Services, which aimed to build on the technical skills learned during Phase 1, and introduce a more expressive target, to produce a piece of creative work that is more coherently linked. Phase 2 would also include a degree of internet use and the development of a website. The project therefore required the residential units to have internet connections installed.

The educational benefits of the internet are well known, as indeed are the potential threats – in relation to pornography and paedophiles. The issue was discussed at length during the seminar organised by CIRA ‘Balancing the Risk’ in April 2001.

The outcome was a general agreement that the young people in the units were socially excluded enough without perpetuating this exclusion by withholding their right to access the World Wide Web in their homes.

A number of strategic safeguards were introduced which help the participants to surf the net safely and protect their identities and vulnerability.

A net nanny was installed and the same restrictions to surfing currently in force to staff of Middlesbrough Council applied to the young people.

Email addresses included ‘ u k ’ thus ensuring that the young people are associated with the local council rather than identified as young people generally, or more specifically, young people in care.

Guidelines for ‘safe surfing’ were established through negotiation with both the young people and the staff. It was made clear to the young people that their use will be monitored and that inappropriate use can and would be traced.

However, at the same time it is important to note that due to the manner in which many pornographic providers ‘meta-tag’ their sites, pornography can inadvertently be found via search engines. The young people were encouraged to report any such incidents of such accidental viewing, without any risk of being reprimanded.

Access to the World Wide Web by staff was only in relation to their work and not for pleasure, although they were encouraged to surf with the young people and support their activities.

Part way through this second phase of the project Middlesbrough Looked After Services contracted the service to Five Rivers. As a result the entire service was reorganised with new smaller homes and new processes.

The project sought to encourage staff and residents to work together creatively over this transitional period, and provide an outlet for the undoubted upheaval experienced during the process of change. The project development was hampered by cancellation of sessions, equipment not in operation and low staff and resident morale.