New scheme takes IT training to disadvantaged communities

It's not easy learning new skills - especially when they involve new technology. Radhika Holmstrom on a scheme that is taking IT training right into the heart of disadvantaged communities

(first published in The Guardian, Wednesday April 4, 2001)

It's around three months ago that Paul Bagnall took his first steps towards computer literacy. "It used to amaze me to see my 10-year-old daughter whizz through and pick things up," he says. "Now I can see what she was doing - and it wasn't difficult. But to go back to college at my age, late 30s, and be in a classroom and realise how out of touch you are would be very, very hard."

Bagnall, who lives on a housing estate in North Tyneside, is typical of the people who are supposed to be getting online in the technological 21st century world - but find that what's on offer, in terms of formal training, just isn't going to work for them.

Everyone knows they need computer skills in today's workplace. "No matter which job you go for now, something has to be done with a computer. I want to work - not necessarily to be a computer whizzkid, but just have the basics."

A multiplicity of government initiatives and taskforces are working on e-government, e-empowerment, e-skills and so on. The "UK online" campaign launched last September was intended to coordinate these, and introduced a new "on-line network of e-learning services", to get people with no knowledge of computers over the first hurdle. The problem is that however much they want to get over that hurdle, any association with educational institutions is going to put some people off.

Rob Cawthron, community development officer for the Newcastle-based Home Housing Association, explains: "On some of the estates where we work, three or four generations have been unemployed. People have been marginalised. There are all sorts of issues about exclusion, underachievement, and learning. Using the standard approach of institutions seemed a bit of a non-starter - if people felt school wasn't for them, what was the point of getting an educational institution to supply training?" In other words, as more people overall become e-familiar, these groups will be excluded further.

Housing associations and others are tackling this in different ways. Home Housing audited the training provision available and found that tenants wanted local, estate-based training, which wasn't necessarily directed towards a qualification. "Lots of people just won't travel very far. We had to offer something flexible - informal learning - where you can just turn up and get used to working with computers as a useful tool rather than something to be afraid of."

One way to get round the problem of fixed institutions - and meet the needs of people like Bagnall - is to use something which literally isn't fixed. Home Housing opted for training based in a "mobile learning centre" - a specially converted van with eight workstations and two trainers on board. The centre started on five estates where, Cawthron says, "if it could work, and be seen to work, it could work anywhere". A year into a three-year access and training programme, the vehicle is now working throughout the north-east, including special sessions for groups such as Asian women, excluded teenagers, and refugees and asylum seekers. It has also worked with homeless young people and with women's refuges.

Alan Shields works for "Computer Gym", a separate company which provides the training and the vehicle. Like Cawthron, he treats the project as much more than just a training exercise. In fact "sometimes the computer side takes a bit of a back seat. People come in and have a chat for about five minutes before they actually touch a computer". By far the most important element, he says, is building up trust and fitting into the local community. "At the beginning, it's important to get right down to ground level, pushing leaflets through doors so that people come out and ask what you're doing. You have to make yourself known to people who wouldn't otherwise come - we often attract people by standing outside and having a chat."

However, Shields is just as keen on getting local people across the digital divide. "There's a real shortage of computer skills, especially in the north-east, so it's important that we're giving them not just a community centre, but skills they need. You've got to start showing people what to do and overcoming their lack of confidence. Even if they only spend a couple of minutes, they're really pleased with what they do and decide to come back next week."

Bagnall decided to give it a go. "The Computer Gym vehicle was on the estate where I lived, and I went in, had a look and sat down. It was just a total one-off. I went in full of trepidation, thinking: 'I'm going to make a fool of myself.'

"The staff started by asking me a few questions, I told them I didn't even know how to turn the machine on, and they said, 'We'll start from the basic level, then.' They didn't make me feel stupid. The hardest bit is making sure you go on a regular basis, because the tuition moves at your own pace. You have your own file and move through the programmes, but nobody pushes you through. But you also get a lot of one-to-one which you wouldn't in a classroom situation."

Both Shields and Cawthron are pleased with the number of people who have come back and stuck with the training. They are also pleased both with "hard" results - a good number of trainees have gained formal qualifications, moved on to other courses or found work - and the "softer" one of overall confidence around computers.

Shields adds: "We found the second stage brought in a lot more adults, because we knew how to tackle the communities better. We try to cater to their needs, rather than offer them particular job skills or qualifications - we say, 'Right, you want to do this, let's do it.' One lady was physically shaking at the thought of touching a computer on her first day. Six months later, she'd got a qualification through us, was about to finish a college course and was applying for jobs for the first time in years."

Meanwhile, Paul Bagnell is now looking either at a college-based course or at getting work using his new skills. "From being very wary, pretty scared of making a fool of myself, I reckon I could take someone through the basic course now. And my kids think it's excellent. They come home, go through their homework and can talk to me about it. I can sit down and teach them how to do it."

A van may seem like an unlikely place to start "bridging the digital divide", but it's getting a significant number of people on the first step of the bridge.

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