The challenges of starting a digital learning programme during COVID-19

Digital Horizons teaches people in South East London to use tablets from their own homes. Georgina Foster talks about the challenges of remote digital inclusion.

Digital Horizons was one of the first programmes I worked on with ClearCommunityWeb, a social enterprise that provides digital advice and support to community groups, older people, vulnerable adults and carers. Digital Horizons started as an idea to run a 12-week introductory training programme for tablets, to help people get connected during COVID.

There were complex challenges starting a digital learning programme during a pandemic with learners who had limited or no prior knowledge, their own individual needs, barriers and fears of technology. I will navigate you through this journey, and unpack some of the key questions we faced along the way.

Setting the scene

The name “Digital Horizons” evokes strong feelings for me. When we think of the horizon, it can seem like something distant, something unreachable. Sailing off into the sunset is an idyllic ending for a film.

Our voyage was not always peaceful or easy, but with a bit of encouragement from us and a lot of courage from our participants, success is possible.

Martin, who joined our Digital Awareness For Older People classes during lockdown, shared his experience with us:

“It just seemed like another world I didn’t understand. So reluctantly, and with a bit of anxiety I got in touch with you and you’ve made it seem actually reachable. Which I very much appreciate. It’s something I could connect with, so that’s a big step forward. It’s not out of reach, because I really thought I was being left behind by the modern world.”

Is there such a thing as the right device?

Using a device for the first time can be daunting, overwhelming and scary. Caspar Kennerdale, the Managing Director of ClearCommunityWeb, has likened this experience to walking into a DIY shop: “I’m confused, I’m anxious, I don’t want to buy the wrong thing… It’s all the same thing but a different subject matter.”

As a social enterprise, we don’t always have the luxury of purchasing the latest release or up to date model, and if we did I am not sure we would. Tablets have been the device of choice for this programme, due to being compact, with a larger screen and generally easier to use. But they come in all different shapes, sizes, weights and price tags.

Finding the most accessible and affordable option for a group that all have their own needs requires a bit of ‘trial and error’, we may need to return to the DIY shop a few times before we find the right drill bit or wall plug, may even make a few mistakes along the way. Its only through trying, and learning, that we find the right match.

How do you identify the problem when you can’t see it?

This can be the most challenging part of running a programme remotely. Asking someone to describe what they can see when they don’t know what they are looking at can take a few attempts. Solving the problem is the easy bit. It’s figuring out what the problem actually is that’s trickier.

When technology feels so familiar, its easy to think it’s easy. But in our programme the fundamentals have to be stripped right down, such as writing ‘.’ instead of ‘dot’ in an email address or describing how to carefully close a pop-up ad so not to be led down a rabbit hole for the remainder of the class.

We don’t always get it right the first time. It takes patience, empathy and determination from both sides to support someone on to a Zoom class or to log into their email for the first time. Like piecing together a puzzle, it takes problem-solving and team work. The moment when you see their smiling faces on the computer screen, the feeling of happiness, pride and relief makes it all worth it.

How do you build relationships without meeting in person?

We have all experienced, at some point, the cringing silence of a Zoom video call, the desperation on a facilitator’s face as they painfully pry responses from a shy virtual audience and the awkwardness of a breakout room with strangers whose video or audio is switched off. Developing relationships with a new group in the “real world” is hard, doing it on a screen is excruciating.

It took a few sessions for our online group to warm to each other, have the confidence to ask questions and contribute in the classes. We did get there in the end though, with a good dose of silly humour and small talk, every class now starts with joyful waves and friendly chit-chatter. Its strange to think we have met never before, and maybe never will, but will always have fond memories of sharing this time together.

We do look ahead to running classes in person again. Having the opportunity to actually meet learners in person, observe how they interact with the tablet and have that in-person teacher/learner relationship will make our work a lot easier and far less time consuming. But doing it remotely is possible!

And the result…?

Weekly activities were provided to help practice and inspire use of the technology outside of the class, and this has been the difference in the uptake of learning.

By the end of the course, learners felt more connected to the community, safer online, less anxious about using technology, and had developed digital problem solving skills.

Elsie has decided to purchase her own tablet and will seek advice from us to find herself a suitable choice. She will continue to attend the Digital Awareness for Older People classes, and would like to learn more about creating documents, file management, shopping online and filling in online forms.

“The Digital Horizon programme is an excellent programme to attend, if you are nervous about anything digital, you will be assisted with tender loving care from a team of experts. So get involved! It is the place to be!’”

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