Digital Inclusion: What can we learn from the UK

From Cecily Michaels, Leep CEO

I was so excited to be visiting the UK to speak about Leep at the Digital Evolution: Social Revolution Conference.  This was such a fabulous opportunity for me to meet with some of the most brilliant digital inclusion initiatives in the UK.

Arriving at Heathrow at 5am I made my way to St Pancras Station to meet my digi hero Helen Milner, CEO of Good Things Foundation

I’m not alone in my admiration for Helen’s massive contribution to getting people online.  Her efforts have been deservedly recognised with an OBE!

We headed to Sheffield (a 2+ hour train trip) to the home of Good Things Foundation.

With less than two weeks to learn how 2 million people have learnt the basic skills required to get online through Learn My Way I started work that day!  I met with key members of the team who support the 5,000+ community-based partners from the Online Centres Network.  These partners are working to tackle digital and social exclusion by providing people with essential digital skills.

Sheffield was my base to visit partners from the Network in Doncaster, Rotherham, Preston, Stockport, Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester, Cambridge and London.  Sheffield is a beautiful town.  The big surprise (particularly for Helen) was seeing a deer while walking in the cemetery close to her home.

During my jam-packed schedule I met the most inspiring, dedicated, competent and hospitable people.  I was so impressed with how passionate and committed staff and volunteers were to share their stories on how they are making such an important contribution to getting their communities online.

The whole time I felt like a kid in a lollyshop!  I kept wanting to know more.

How did so many organisations reach this understanding of the importance of digital mentoring as a core program?

On my visit to Edlington Hilltop in Doncaster I met with the wonderful Rob Smedley, Rob Reid and Leigh Calladine, seen below.  Ben Bonser a very talented volunteer graphic designer was also another treat who drew a caricature of me – thanks Ben!

Rob Smedley. Rob Reid and Leigh Calladine from Edlington Hilltop

Edlington Hilltop provides valuable learning opportunities and encouragement for people who are long term unemployed, those who struggled to engage with formal study and women wishing to return to the workforce.  I was impressed to hear of their holistic approach to volunteers, asking them “what can we do for you to further your career goals?”

At Lifewise Rotheram I met with Diane Collins and volunteer Digital Outreach officers, Allan and Ian. Lifewise is an interactive learning centre developed by the South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue and the South Yorkshire Police to provide programs to reduce crime and encourage fire safety.  I was a little surprised that a service like this would be offering a very successful Online Basics program.  It made me realise how digital inclusion is key to any program, business, service.  It was really impressed on me how the regular attendees come as much for the social contact as they do to learn about technology.

Diane Collins and volunteer Digital Outreach officers, Allan and Ian. from Lifewise Rotheram

My next stop was at Intact in Preston where I met up with Steph Lees-Pinson who works as the Training and Employment Officer at the Centre. Intact has a very sophisticated volunteer digital champion training program with nearly daily mentoring sessions.  I also got to chat with Gordon Hempton a key community advocate for digital inclusion before catching the train to Manchester.

I’d requested a tour of the recently renovated Manchester Library after reading Helen’s blog.  Kevin Bolton was my guide who showed me the much to be admired innovative use of technology in the transformed building. However I was disappointed to learn there was no digital mentoring program offered to support people visiting the library who lack digital skills.

Stockport was another fascinating day (and not just because of the snow we saw on the way there).  I met with Nickie and Ryan from Starting Point who were in the middle of training Digital Champions on the eSafety module in Learn My Way.  These Digital Champions dedicate 2 hours each Saturday for 5 weeks to be skilled in delivering this new module.  That’s commitment!

Nickie and Ryan from Starting Point, with Cecily Michaels and Helen Milner

This is one of the most successful UK Online Centres which started as a fish and chips shop and has expanded to include a training room upstairs and coffee shop next door. Around 30 volunteers provide digital inclusion support to several outreach locations including social housing providers.

Due to severe weather conditions I spoke to Paul Davies from Destinations Saltburn on skype. Paul was a wealth of information explaining how their program has grown over the past decade from a time when people were wary of anything digital to now where they have over 1,000 learners each year.  They also offer outreach services in rural villages using a mixture of paid staff who then hand over to the digital champions.  Often the digital learners become the digital campions.

Visiting Birmingham and particularly the Crossover Centre was a real eye opener.  My heart goes out to Hash Lorgat and his team of 1 ½ staff and volunteers to support the 2000 or more people coming through their centre to gain fundamental digital skills in order to be able to apply for jobs online which is essential in the UK if they want to maintain your benefits.

At BYCS (Bangladeshi Youth and Cultural Shomiti) in Leicester I was welcomed by Dr Shofil Chowdhury and at least 20 digital learners and champions.  These people had given up their afternoon to meet me and share their stories of how learning about technology had changed their lives. I was told in Bangladesh they had little need for a computer.  One 86 year old man proudly explained how he wrote a book after mastering computer skills through their program!

Dr Shofil Chowdhury with Cecily Michaels and team members from BYCS

In Cambridge it was a treat to meet Nyree Scott and Clara Gomez-Serrrano working on a joint project funded by Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridge City Council.  These women had recruited a team of Digital Champions from retirement villages who were being trained to provide digital mentoring service for the residents.  These older community volunteers have had a passion for computers most of their adult life.

Ngire Scott and Clara Gomez-Serrrano working on a joint project funded by Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridge City Council

I was sorry to have to leave them but next on my itinerary was Cambridge Library where David gave me a comprehensive explanation of their extensive community learning program getting people on line using Learn My Way.

The last centre I visited was Bromley by Bow in London where I got to learn from a very inspirational woman, Shahanara Begum, how she has embedded digital inclusion throughout all the centre programs.

The Digital Evolution: Social Revolution Conference was a massive high to end my amazing journey.  This conference brought together a range of people from community organisations, policy makers and corporates working to tackle the difficult issues digital exclusion creates.  It was not only fascinating hearing from them how some of England’s greatest social challenges are addressed, but I met so many fellow passionate digital evangelists including Roger Hamilton, Juliane Paduim-Quan and Bob Gann.

Many at the Conference were sympathetic to the challenges I outlined facing Australians, not least NDIS recipients and their carers when they’ve never used a computer before and now need to access their children’s plans online.

For me there is stark contrast between the well meaning but unavoidably ad hoc approaches we have in Australia with Tech Savvy Seniors, Broadband for Seniors, and GoDigi compared to the holistic approach Good Things Foundation have taken with significant government funding in the UK.

Whilst I welcome Malcolm Turnbull’s commitment of $50 million to put seniors online over 4 years we still have a long way to go in Australia.  Much still needs to be done.  We need:

  • To address the attitudes in Australia preventing services from believing they can offer digital mentoring services.
  • An eLearning program like Learn My Way that has been developed and co-designed with learners providing a competency based approach to learning digital skills.
  • A collaborative approach involving all organisations in communities to ensure Australians are digitally ready.
  • A network that unites the public and private sector to address the digital divide.

I despair for Australians who don’t have the digital skills necessary to deal with the multitude of online forms expected by our health system which I have personally experienced with my parents.  Digital inclusion programs need to be a core element of any service delivery organisation.

A massive thanks to Mike Allen and the Leep Board for investing in me, to Helen for making this tour such a valuable experience, and to Milton and Helen for their warm hospitality and fabulous cooking.

Finally, thank you to all the wonderful digital enthusiasts who shared their stories and knowledge so generously. You have inspired me to believe that we can create a digitally inclusive Australia where we all imagine tomorrow together!

You can find out more about our current digital inclusion initiatives here. I’d love to hear from you if you have an interest in advancing inclusion through digital or to talk about how we can work together – phone me on 4721 1866 or email me at [email protected]