Getting IT Together for everyone in Bristol

This month I talked to Kerry Bradshaw, who works for Citizens Online, a national charity set up to tackle the issues of digital exclusion. Kerry is the project coordinator for a Get IT Together project in Bristol, and her focus is on getting older and disabled people online.

Kerry, what is your project all about?

The Bristol project is one of 15 Get IT Together projects running across the UK. Get IT Together is a campaign set up by BT, and Citizens Online are one of the partners in the campaign.

All the projects bring together local partners to set up training courses to get people online, but ours is slightly different in that it focuses specifically on the needs of older and disabled people.

Bristol is a very forward-thinking city and has big plans around digital technology. The council has done a lot of great things, like opening up free wi-fi hotspots in the town centre and creating a computer reuse scheme, but the one thing missing was skilling people up to get online – which is where we come in. Helping older people and disabled adults gain basic IT skills to make them feel more empowered is something that was agreed with the council as a priority, and they fund this work and support us in lots of ways.

Our project has been going for 18 months now and we currently run 12 courses in Bristol every week, out of a combination of buildings including libraries, community centres, housing associations and old people's day centres. The courses are all tailored towards learners' own personal interests and of course we pride ourselves on having friendly, approachable tutors!

What are the specific needs of older and disabled people online?

Well, first of all, this group of people are amongst those who often need the most help. It may be about accessing benefits and other government services, shopping around to save money, or needing to get shopping delivered to their home. And generally, they're also people who are least likely to have computers or have thought about getting online.

We find that older people can be a bit fearful of using computers or think there's no reason for them to use one, so once we've reassured them that they can't break anything, we then show them information that reflects their personal interests.

For others, needs vary depending on their disability. For instance, some of our learners find it hard to use a separate mouse and screen which requires you to look in two different places at once, or they may need extra help to view the information on screen. We're usually able to help with all their concerns, by using different technology like iPads – that are easy to swipe across – or showing them how to change the settings on their computer.

How do the courses work and what kind of things can people learn?

We do an initial five weeks of structured learning with our attendees.

Week one is all about finding out why people want to get online. Often they just want to know what it's all about; for instance they may have seen references to Facebook or Twitter on TV programmes. It doesn't mean they want to join those networks, they just want to understand what's happening.

We focus a lot on putting them at ease with the basic equipment. To start with, many users haven't seen a mouse before and they hold it up as if it's a remote control. We show them some of the fun things – games like Solitaire, and how to drag and drop documents. When you're used to using a computer this sounds small, but it can feel like quite a lot for the people learning.

In week two we show them how to use the keyboard, and the third week looks more at popular internet sites.

By the fourth week they're ready to set up e-mail accounts so that they can e-mail all their fellow classmates, and then the fifth week is more of an open session to focus on things that might specifically interest them, like using Skype or attaching photos to e-mail.

Some projects just give people a taste of the internet without providing enough time for them to gain skills to really benefit. We hope our sessions offer more in terms of time and content to enable learners to use the internet fully.

What is the demand like – and how do you cope with it?

We currently have a waiting list of three months for our courses – which is pleasing, but also quite frustrating.

We do as much as we can to reduce this, and we get a real variety of support from some great organisations like Learn Direct, LinkAge, The Dolphin Society and Bristol Charities, as well as Bristol City Council. Some of our partners loan us equipment, or we show them how to run the courses and they deliver them.

And we're really lucky in Bristol to have a very active volunteering scheme. Our volunteers are unsung heroes who do an amazing job, covering everything from teaching to leafleting – we couldn't do half of what we do without them.

It can be difficult to get people to try something new or that's out of their comfort zone. How do you get to the people you most want to involve?

Sometimes the simple things have the most effect, such as putting posters and information in areas that people visit frequently like libraries and doctors surgeries. We regularly leaflet houses too so that no-one misses the message that we're here for them.

And sometimes you just have to get creative. Recently we went to a Bristol Odeon cinema screening of the Maggie Smith film 'Quartet' that had been laid on for older people. We set up our iPads in the foyer to work as a little orchestra and then showed how you could use the iPad to watch the trailer for the film.

In the end, people that have been along to courses have really enjoyed them and I'd say that word of mouth has probably been the most powerful thing of all.

Are there any things you're particularly proud of?

We recently ran a number of iPad courses which went brilliantly, as the technology is just so much easier for our audience to use. We're currently in the process of planning more of these with the help of The Dolphin Society and Bristol Charities.

It's also really rewarding to see the enthusiasm of some of our attendees. We have a guy called Ivor who's 86 – he began one of our courses and had to leave halfway through to go into hospital. But as soon as he was out he wanted to get involved in our iPad course. Ivor's a big fan of bingo – he goes to the bingo hall to play every night, and they use touchscreens there – he's got so much quicker since he's been practising on the iPad! His son bought him an iPad and now Ivor uses it to Skype him most days.

The project is due to wind down in August 2014. How will you judge if it's been successful?

There are a number of ways that we're looking at this. We're on course to meet specific targets around getting people online over the three years of the project, and we're happy that so far we've got 60 per cent of our target number of people trained as competent and confident internet users.

We think that the proportion of people who go on to become regular internet users is a good measure of success. The numbers who benefit by being able to access government services, save money or connect with social groups are also important indicators.

We have a longitudinal study running on this which so far shows that 75 per cent of our learners are still actively using a computer, which is really encouraging.

What would you ultimately like to see happen when the project ends?

Our project has made some great strides forward and we've seen that there's no shortage of enthusiasm to get Bristol residents online. There are also some brilliant schemes in our area like Byteback, where people can get hold of refurbished ex-council computers for just £35.

For me, the dream would be to bring this all together and have some really good signposting in place for Bristol. It would be about having one contact point – a kind of 'Get Bristol Online' phone number and website where people could find out everything about what computer access courses are available, where they can get the best value kit from, and information on the best connections in the area.

Find out more about Get IT Together.

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