Supporting the digitally excluded during Covid-19

Croydon Council has been teaching vulnerable residents how to get online, learning and adapting along the way.

Now more than ever, the social, economic and educational benefits of encouraging residents to access services online are clear.

I’ve been leading on a pilot project, funded by Local Government Association (LGA), to deliver 1-2-1 digital literacy training to older and vulnerable residents living in four sheltered housing blocks in New Addington.

Challenges our residents face

Some of the challenges of digital inclusion are outlined in the Government Digital Inclusion Strategy. The rapidly changing technology landscape, with new applications and hardware constantly being released and updated, further complicates things.

Problems outlined in the strategy include:

  • limited access to hardware or affordable connection
  • low levels of digital literacy
  • a lack of trust or confidence
  • difficulty in retaining information
  • worries about cost and security

These concerns can affect older generations who are most likely to be digitally excluded but could benefit the most from being online. Studies show that older female residents from BAME backgrounds are particularly likely to be excluded.

Face-to-face training

In my role as digital inclusion and engagement officer, I initially based myself in each of the communal lounges (or a nearby library) two days a week to deliver basic skills training and give people a chance to get to know and feel comfortable with me. I used Google Chromebooks, laptaps or residents’ own devices to deliver digital training on a 1-2-1 basis or in small groups.

In mid-January, sessions began with a small number of interested residents. They were all over 60 and very enthusiastic about learning – several wanted to increase their confidence.

The training sessions focused on showing residents how to get online and safely use websites, how to set up and use email, and how to navigate social media so they could engage with friends and family online.

Some of these residents used smartphones but they needed help to get the best use from them. Some of them were paying more than they needed to for their contracts. I also often found some individuals didn’t know how to connect to their WiFi, download software or really understand what the internet was, despite using it via apps.

Pandemic pivoting

In March, face-to- face sessions were abruptly suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic and given that most residents were not online it was difficult to see a way forward for the project. Remote sessions were just not possible due to most residents’ lack of understanding of digital technology and lack of connection.

Vulnerable residents such as the ones I was seeing were now in lockdown and being shielded. I decided that the best way forward would be to keep in contact with residents and offer support via telephone conversations as well as through email. However, this was not straightforward as not all residents had email addresses yet, nor could they easily access WiFi.

‘Computers don’t come with instructions’

We decided to adapt the project to take a longer-term view. I began to make digital skills guides which they could all work with while being isolated. These could be delivered to residents to allow continued support and contact during the lockdown.

The isolation that has come with lockdown had accelerated the need for digital inclusion, with some school children unable to study and some residents lacking means of communication with friends and family.

It might seem counterintuitive, but distributing the booklets in a more traditional media aims to reach residents in a format they feel comfortable with. While there are support materials for those new to being online, many are on the internet and not accessible to beginners.

There is also an absence of print materials aimed at this purpose, leaving a problem for those without any experience and wanting to become more confident (and as one resident pointed out to me, “many computers come without instructions”). Therefore these guides are being developed for the benefit of residents across the whole borough.

Video conferencing, free WiFi and laptops

Having completed draft guides, I have continued to work with the residents on the pilot scheme to move towards online sessions via video conferencing.

The planned installation of free WiFi to the blocks by Community Fibre was brought forward and I also discovered that the resident involvement team, which I work for at Croydon Council, had some decommissioned laptops from a previous project.

Given that I only had three laptops for the project and could no longer teach in person, these were really important to getting all the residents online so they could practise on their own. The laptops are installed with easy-to-use software, so fortunately each resident that enrolled now has a device and internet access.

Socially distanced

With the easing of lockdown, I could deliver the laptops and oversee the installation of WiFi to the sheltered blocks, and I resumed sessions with residents either online or in socially distanced sessions.

I am continuing to learn about the challenges that vulnerable residents face. Covid-19 causes isolation, which digital media can help to alleviate. It provides valuable social contact and interaction but for those who have a limited skill set and low confidence, support is vital.

Purchasing media packages and dealing with concepts such as free WiFi and data limits can be challenging for some residents and could leave them open to exploitation. For those anxious about cost and with little disposable income, this can be enough to put them off. We have identified that this is an area where we need to provide support.

Next steps

The next phase will build on what we have learnt from the LGA pilot. While this work in New Addington continues until the end of the year, we are planning how to deliver digital inclusion more widely across the borough.

We’ve recently received funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to collaborate with Leeds City Council, Age UK Croydon and TechResort.

We’ll be sharing what we’ve learnt by creating a digital playbook to help other councils and voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations to support digital inclusion in local communities.

If you would like to contact me about this project or to get copies of the digital inclusion guides, please email daniel.powell@croydon.gov.uk.

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