/ Health, Technology

Who is supporting our ‘silver surfers’?

Elderly man looking confused at computer

Believe it or not there are around nine million Brits who’ve never been online. But what’s the point of initiatives to get people using the internet if there’s no funding to teach them the skills they need to do so?

The government has just appointed a new Executive Director of Digital to head up a digital ‘revolution’ aiming to cut costs and change the way we interact with public services.

In line with this I’ve noticed a big media push over the last few months encouraging more people to take their ‘First Click’. The BBC is backing it, and then there’s Race Online, a government scheme boasting ‘a rallying cry for us all to create a truly networked nation’.

But what about those people who don’t know how to use the internet – or those who have never even used a computer? According to the government website Directgov nine million people in Britain, including many aged over 50, have never been online.

Funding cuts are a step backwards

My personal interest in this topic has come from a previous job teaching basic computer skills to elderly citizens at a local pensioners’ centre. The overriding reason they attended was because they didn’t want to feel cut off from a huge part of today’s society.

However the pensioners’ centre in question is now facing possible closure because of funding cuts, with several similar centres in the area to shut down this month. To me, this decline in free access to computers means that the push to get more people online will come up against inevitable hurdles. Not everyone has access, and where they do they may lack the confidence or skills to participate anyway.

Plus, the learning resource My Guide, set up under the last government to help beginners with IT skills, has recently been trimmed down ‘in line with the cuts taking place across the public sector’. Is this not a step backwards?

We can’t afford to resist technology

With local councils, police forces and job centres upping their online content, it’s clear that online accessibility saves money for businesses and public services. As well as saving some cash in the public purse, it would be naïve to deny the benefits the online world can bring to us as individuals.

This is a point that Rob Reid, Scientific Policy Advisor at Which?, raised when I spoke to him about this issue:

‘Getting online gives you access to a facet of society that you’re otherwise excluded from, not to mention access to better deals on a range of goods and services. For this reason it is laudable for government and businesses to encourage consumers to get online.’

But, if using the internet really is shifting from being an optional pastime to a necessary skill, are there enough educational provisions to support our ‘silver surfers’ (a government term, not my own)?

As Rob continues, ‘It is vitally important that in the race to be Europe’s leading digital economy we don’t leave behind the elderly and vulnerable’. My sentiments exactly, so shouldn’t these fancy schemes be backed up with practical support?

Charlie says:
6 June 2011

I am 76 years old and have been useing computers since the days when you had to learn a Dos software programme to work one, and the computer of today can still be just as or even more frustrating. But the advantages it gives one are, as has been said great. The majority of older people are not stupid, and are very capable of making up their own minds. What I think is needed in the future is for more simplicity in the way that computers are operated, Apple Ipad and similar products are examples that lead the way to simple operation of computers.
Who should pay for training? My answer is definitely the manufacturers who are making enormous profits. Loss of libraries! Yes, but why not new digital libraries equiped and staffed by manufacturers from their sales/marketing budgets, for anyone to use and learn on? This would benefit the industry as people of all ages could use the products and many would probably decide to buy a computer.

Seniors Discounts says:
7 June 2011

Digital Unite is doing a lot to help introduce and support older people getting online. For example, they recently held Spring Online with Silver Surfers’ Day between 16-20th May. There were 2,500 events across the United Kingdom to assist older people with computers and the internet.

James Harrison says:
10 June 2011

When I have recieved a new computer, there have been plenty of instructions and disks (which, if one turns the computer on and puts the disk in, it has instructions on it.) which makes starting and learning easy enough. I agree that there also seems to be a built in confusing of operations and requirements from programs and indeed, salespeople. There are also free disks at ‘supermarkets’ which guide one through getting online. On the point of ‘stupidity’ (Charlie) , there are plenty of stupid idiots who have no sense of propriety, decent language, spelling or punctuation who are already online and have no apparent problems. If they can earn enough money (do they have ‘computer benefits’ nowadays?) to buy one and get it going, it can’t be that hard can it?
Ultimately, a computer is an aid. It does not substitute for friends.

Neil K says:
15 June 2011

My local library has been running free introductory IT classes for some time now and they have proved very popular, particularly with the older generation.

About 4months ago I asked the local library staff if they thought there would be any interest in providing a more advanced course, teaching word processing, spreadsheet and maybe database, if I volunteered to teach it. It was deemed to be a good idea.

The course is now running and we are about to start our 3rd group of 6 participants; it’s very popular and also very enjoyable to teach.

We haven’t advertised, as such; it’s just a pile of A5 leaflets on the library reception desk and word of mouth.

I am 74 years of age and have been using a computer since my late 50’s when I scrounged an old unused one at work and started to learn to write letters, take notes etc and somehow managed to teach myself how to do few spreadsheets on Excell.
Now I am older but still use my laptop daily. My problems are these: –
My memory slips now and then, it takes longer to work something out as by the time I have read a page of the online manual and try to put it into practise, I have forgotten what it said as laying down memory takes a lot longer. Older people can work familiar software very well but manufacturers often stop supporting older software that works well enough and replacements are so different it takes more time than I have to learn how to use them properly.
I use the web daily and shop online, bank online, edit photos and build my family tree, and use e-mail most days and use e-bay and order medication from my GP, but I class myself as a moderately computer literate because hardware and software providers continually change things and I cannot keep up. Local authority and governemt websites and so big and are difficult to navigate around as you get older and manufacturers of hardware make computers expensive to replace items such as a laptop keyboard when one or two keys stop functioning or the battery fails just out of warranty.
My husband worked for a worldwide manufacturer from the 1960’s until taking early retirement because the company had been overtaken in the market place. I remember him bringing home one of the first portable desktops that had little orange men jerking across the screen in a simple game. It had a language all of its own, Normal English words with different meanings, very user unfriendly and he used DOS. I remember being fascinated and exasperated saying why can’t they make them so that ordinary people can use one as I would want one at home but the company was not interested in portables at that time, the Japanese copied the idea and mass produced it cheaper than other manufacturers.
On the whole it the less well off and more isolated pensioners that would benefit from most from learning to go online but these are the people least likely to have the opportunity. In my leasehold retirement complex, I have suggested numerous times that we have a communal computer group but some people are either already using the web or can afford not to need to.
I think I have all the security I need online but I cannot be sure when I occasionally go on Facebook for example and until hacking, identity theft, bank security etc are fully mastered most older people remain very wary.

Lets face it, on top of the need to teach usage there is also the need to teach how to resolve broadband problems in the home.

This is especially true of the larger companies (BT are you listening?) who have off shore help centres with people using a workflow diagnostic that is about as useful as a pain in the bum! They need to raise their game and realise that some people do not have the skills and hearing to answer stupid questions relating to their equipment.

What will be required is the free provision of an engineer to come out to rectify an issue which is unfathomable as far as the elderly are concerned. Without this using a computer doesn’t even get off the ground as the first time they lose connectivity will result in their machine being thrown out.

BTW I do have the skills as I have been working in software development and test for over 35 years but I find the pathetic capability of the helplines to be beyond a joke, they find that when I have an issue I do not like being patronised by being asked to check the power is switched on and then walk me through changing an ADSL filter ‘just in case’.

Normally I am telling them not to be stupid and listen to me as my expertise is far above those sitting in a remote site.

I presume that you are happy to pay more for your broadband service so that silver surfers and anyone who does not have a clue about computers to receive free help from skilled engineers.

I can relate to your frustration with having to endure trivial questions from helpline staff, but how are they to know what your skills are, and be sure that you have not overlooked something. My experience with helping diagnose computer-related problems suggest that even fairly experienced people sometimes overlook things.

@wavechange – as far as I am concerned I do ALL the diagnosis I can before I contact the help desk, I use them as a last resort.

The last time I had to contact them I asked for a line check as I was unable to achieve a stable connection on my Netgear ADSL2+ modem. Their response was ‘are the lights on’ without specifying which ones they were talking about, when I said the connection indicator was on and then going off they blamed the modem! As it wasn’t theirs they almost washed their hands, but in the process they checked the line and surprisingly everything started to work again.