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?