May 5, 2011

UK: How the voluntary sector is getting the last third of the UK online

LONDON / The Guardian / Housing / May 5, 2011

Guardian Professional

Digital Outreach is helping marginalised communities to get online. Chief executive Ian Agnew explains why it matters

By Ian Agnew

The voluntary sector can work with housing associations
to help older people get online.

At a sheltered housing complex in Skelmersdale, residents are enjoying their daily coffee morning in the communal lounge. Normally this is a chance for people to catch up with each other's news but today is different. Today the conversation turns to dongles.

Eleven elderly residents crowd around a laptop with their cups of coffee while a local volunteer plugs in a dongle. They learn how to use price comparison websites and send emails. Soon they are using Google Earth to look at a relative's home in Australia.

Most of the residents at this sheltered housing scheme would never have tried the web if this session hadn't been brought to their coffee morning. The majority are over 75 and many have mobility problems. Seeking out opportunities to get online, be that at the local computer centre or library, just isn't an option. Some are fearful as they lack computer skills and have worries about online security. Others just don't see the internet as relevant to them.

Over in Manchester, Anne who is 64, lives in Tameside Court, a sheltered housing complex for people over 50. She attends the Ladies Friendship Group and twice a week they meet for bingo. Anne went online for the first time at her bingo night – in between games. She admits she wouldn't have tried the internet had the taster session not been brought to her group. Having the class take place in the building where she lives made her feel more comfortable as she was learning alongside people she knows.

Like most of her fellow bingo players, Anne didn't think the internet could offer her anything. But Clare Planter, who delivered the web session to residents, knows the Ladies Friendship Group well and the class focused on things they like such as online brain games and staying in touch with family.

Clare works for Hattersley and Mottram Community Media. Like hundreds of voluntary sector organisations around the country, HMCM was engaged by social enterprise Digital Outreach to get local older people online.

This model of mobilising the trusted voluntary sector to communicate messages is one that Digital Outreach had already used effectively to raise awareness of digital TV switchover amongst 600,000 older and disabled people. With 9 million people in the UK still offline, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills asked Digital Outreach to test whether this model could be used to boost web use.

During the Get Connected, Get Online project, web taster sessions were delivered to more than 1,142 people at existing community events. Many of these sessions took place at social housing schemes – from residents' meetings to domino clubs and keep fit groups.

The results speak for themselves. Over 77% of participants reacted positively to the session when it was delivered by someone they already knew. Some 62% reported that having the session take place as part of their group meeting encouraged them to find out more about the web, while 64% said that taking part in the Get Connected, Get Online session helped them to see the personal benefits of the internet.

Six months on and Digital Outreach revisited the project to test its longevity. Researchers found that even after the programme had finished, session leaders who had been trained to give people information about the web were continuing to encourage a wide range of groups to get online. This was particularly prevalent in social housing schemes, where there is often a strong network of community organisations working with residents. By training voluntary sector staff who regularly visit sheltered housing complexes and other local groups, support to get online remained in the community for many months after the project had finished.

This ability to embed knowledge and support within trusted voluntary sector networks holds the key to changing people's attitudes to the internet and getting the final third of the population online.

Ian Agnew is chief executive of Digital Outreach

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