It was recently estimated that a fifth of the UK population has never used the internet. In South Yorkshire, this number increases to around a third of our community.
With national projects like Race Online 2012 gathering pace, the growing importance of digital technology to our lives is becoming more apparent, as is the need for innovative schemes promoting digital inclusion.
The Digital Divide
Among the reasons given for this non-engagement, some of the most common are:
- Limited access, leading to unfamiliarity and wariness of technology and learning
- A feeling of being daunted by technology and a lack of skills needed to use it
- That the relevance and usefulness of digital technology to our daily lives is not recognised.
The result of this is that some people are not learning to use technology, and do not appreciate how well and easily it is now integrated into practical life, how normal it has become for the majority of people in the UK.
Building the bridge from our community
Recognising that digital technologies are a part of everyday life and offer a natural form of communication is at the heart of Making IT Personal. We have created a framework that allows those with some knowledge of digital technologies to pass these skills on to those that need it, and to be recognised for doing so. We call them DOTs—Digital Outreach Trainers—members of our community who are willing and able to volunteer as informal mentors of digital technology.
What does a DOT do?
A DOT receives no initial training for their role because it is built on skills and knowledge they already possess, and because mentoring takes place informally in an everyday context. Digital skills may be computing and the internet, mobile phones or digital TV, and could be in the workplace, the shops or a community centre. DOTs are not experts in technology or experienced trainers, but simply share what they already know with others—that digital technology can be a practical, useful and useable part of their everyday lives.
What does a DOT get?
At the first stage, trainee DOTs are assigned an eMentor, someone who has been through the DOT process and will provide support through the training scheme. This involves keeping an online record of occasions when they have helped others with technology. DOTs also gain access to the online community where they can exchange ideas and support as well as improve their own knowledge about digital technology from like-minded people.
Trainee DOTs become approved when they demonstrate through their journal that they meet certain criteria set out in the DOT handbook. This creates further opportunities to continue learning by going on to become accredited at the Open College Network at level 2 and 3, approval as a DOT counting as level 1.
For those interested in a higher level, the scheme has also funded modules on Sheffield College’s e-communications foundation degree, which features an emphasis on the delivery of digital public services.
Support and Learning Materials
To further aid new starters with digital technology, we have created a suite of learning materials. The Fast Forward software guides are bite-sized tutorials designed to be completed within 30 minutes, each focussing on a different use of digital technology:
- They can be used in a variety of settings—face to face with a mentor, or as distance learning aids.
- Basic digital skills are combined with learning basic literacy from entry level to level 1. For example, learning about sentence structure through simple keyboard skills.
- They connect basic ICT skills with employability—where to look for jobs online, writing an application letter and completing digital forms.
- They are ‘locally sourced,’ the tutorials tailored to the town in which they are used, incorporating local personalities and landmarks.
What makes the DOTs scheme different?
While the idea of volunteer digital champions and community-based mentors is not unique, the way we are developing the scheme in South Yorkshire has distinctive features.
- We are not recruiting a special cohort to be digital outreach trainers. Anyone can be a DOT and the potential number of DOTs is unlimited.
- By making use of informal mentoring, the scheme can reach those which more formal courses will not.
- DOTs do not need specialist IT knowledge—they just need some know-how of digital technology and to be willing to pass it on.
- DOTs do not commit to set times or hours to the scheme—they simply record what they are already doing.
Self-seeding knowledge and skills
The informality of the Making IT Personal scheme makes it easy for people to become DOTs and to spread their knowledge and skills throughout the community. What we are beginning to create is a community of DOTs that is self-organising and self-regulating. Those that are mentored will hopefully in time become DOTs themselves, creating a cascading model of learning and sharing, narrowing the digital divide in South Yorkshire, one person at a time.
Making IT Personal: Joining the DOTs was launched in 2009 with support from the European Social Fund. A key part of the ESF funding is to help form transnational partnerships in order to share ideas and good practice across the EU member states.
We have created a link to the Maltese Communications Authority and have been able to learn about the situation in Malta. This has led to the development of Maltese versions of the Fast Forward learning materials, and the government has expressed interest in adopting the DOTs approach.
In addition, building a relationship with Net Trainers Association has led to a useful review of our learning materials by the University of Furtwagen, Germany, as well as an exchange of perspectives on digital inclusion in the UK and Germany.