/ 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?

Abi UKonlinecentres says:
27 May 2011

Really interested to see this debate – lots of interesting points all the way through. Debbie in Southampton – I did just want to mention UK online centres. There’s quite a few in the area, including the Libraries, which are doing some really good work in getting people online. It may be that they could help you (and vice versa) in some way, particularly with your back-log of learners? I know they’re always keen to work with other community partners/providers and I’d be really happy to help you get in touch if you don’t already know them.
The network of UK online centres across England 3,500 strong, and includes centres which deliver the BBC’s First Click, Age Concern centres, community centres and of course libraries! Very often the UK online centres bit is only part of what they do, but all offer free or very low cost access to computers and the internet – and the support to use them.
With cuts taking place across the public sector funding is tighter everywhere, but there are places making this work –and work well – at ground level. There is funding available from UK online centres for grassroots providers, but more importantly there’s lots of other products, services and resources available which can help community partners do more of what they’re already doing. If you’re already working in this area, I’d really recommend checking out our website about becoming a UK online centres partner: http://www.ukonlinecentres.com/corporate-pages/centre-partners-network/become-a-centre.html

Philip Herlihy says:
27 May 2011

When I was a student I eventually twigged that Librarians know how to find books and articles. My grades shot up accordingly. These days, a librarian will know how find things online. As public library services invariably (?) provide access to the Internet, a little Internet coaching should be recognised as part of a librarian’s job. The necessary assistance should be (and I’m sure often is) seen as an essential part of library provision. Just needs developing and publicising a bit more, especially among the older generation.

Philip is right about using public libraries, but ask for help at quiet times.

A simple way of achieving better results for searching the Web is to choose Advanced Search in Google. For example, this lets you find pages that have been updated during the last 24 hours.

Mary says:
28 May 2011

yes i agree public libraries are a great resource for this type of thing. the trouble is my local one has been closed down!

May I draw attention and commend to everyone the University of the Third Age, U3A for short, a self-help organisation for those who are no longer in full-time employment. It currently has over a quarter of a million members and many branches across the UK. Our local branch (in Bucks) has around 1,400 members and 80 interest groups, including three devoted to computing at different levels, viz. absolute beginners, improvers and advanced. Branches set their own annual membership fees – ours is £22 per annum and our computing groups make no additional charge. I am a semi-retired OAP myself, with over 20 years’ computing experience both professional and private, and lead the improvers group. There are currently over 50 members in my group and I am always receiving calls from new applicants. Together with the other two groups our membership must be way over 100 by now. Groups do a mix of presentations and discussion of whatever computing issues are currently preoccupying their members. I expect that other U3A branches will have similar computing groups, so would suggest that those interested might find their local branch via U3A’s national Web-site : http://www.u3a.org.uk/

George says:
27 May 2011

Cost of the first step inhibits older people getting on-line, I feel. Resources at getonlineathome.org referred in Laura’s 26 May posting look good – a low price machine and mobile dongle offer. But rental (or simply loan) of these might give a chance to put a toe in the water without big initial spend.

A good package would be a WiFi Linux-based netbook with a dial-up to WiFi converter to plug into the telephone line. This would be relatively slow, but fine for email and browsing and have a low initial set-up (and running) cost. A tailored dongle service has the disadvantage that mobile coverage remains patchy.

Cost also impacts learning the starting basics, but this seems less important to me. Self teaching works once the hardware and internet connection is available. Tuition in a social context is good, but not easily accessible to all. I’m pleased to see that John Lewis staff are volunteering to provide real-person help.

Mike says:
27 May 2011

Our local Rotary Club provides a free weekly session in the local library for anyone wanting to learn computer and internet basics. Students at the local community college also provide a similar service. Funding is irrelevant and all too often blamed when good family support and community service should be taking responsibility.
Sadly we appear to live in a society where too many expect the state (taxpayers) to provide.

Moyra of Edinburgh says:
27 May 2011

Love my computer but went to night school for two years (my choice) but have a huge gripe. The government want us all online but you have to be prepared for the likes of BT telling you you have gone over your usage (by an extremely small amount) and they charge you £5 extra but cannot tell you where you are going wrong or what you are downloading that is taking up all the usage. As much as I am 70, I have used a computer for 20 years and do enjoy getting cheaper deals especially from Amazon – yes everyone should be given the choice but if people do not know the value of owning a computer, how can they evaluate what they are missing?

Rob says:
27 May 2011

Glad Neil has mentioned U3A. There are many reasons for us oldies to join U3A. So many interests are catered for. The members who run the various groups are themselves volunteer members and this makes the weekly sessions nice and informal. Just the ticket for anyone starting out or wishing to progress with a computer……and make new friends !

As someone who has only had a computer relatively recently, after thinking about it for about 5 years and using libraries for e-mails,I would like to make a number of points:

1) My lack of motivation was a mixture of many things – not wishing to make an expensive mistake about the type of computer or the broadband supplier, not knowing how to set it up, concern that I would become addicted and not have time for other activities, lack of understanding of what was on the web and my fondness for books.

2) Though I had friends with computer skills none of them had the time or interest in undertaking the lengthy job of teaching me and being a back-up when I needed help, nor did I expect them to. I went to courses but they were mainly concerned with Word , spreadsheets and other things which didn’t interest me.

3) There is a danger in generalising about what older people want. Some may want the social contacts of a class, others may want to be able to contact help when they are sitting at home. I don’t think the latter is disempowering, as suggested by Fred. Not everyone wants to use the internet for shopping or paying bills and I have yet to come across a course that tells one how to access medical articles or,say, Avaaz, TED, find old friends etc It’s not enough to just give the basics and then stop.

4) Should the taxpayer subsidise this? I don’t see why not. Everyone, including the elderly, pay for the education of children to learn computing at school, so not to help people whose education or training stopped before the internet became such an essential part of everyday life is , frankly, discriminatory. If it saves the government and businesses money to do everything online why should the elderly have to subsidise them?

5) Information is essential for participation and empowerment in a democratic society and people who don’t have access to this, for whatever reason, are excluded. We know that mimal education has always been a key cause of disadvantage, so why is this any different?

Just to say that my 91-year-old mother can now receive and send emails, look things up on Google, and, most importantly, play Scrabble on facebook – this has been a big motivator for her to use the computer every day – maybe something really interactive like that would encourage older people.

Robbie says:
28 May 2011

Daft numbers, how many of these 9 million do not have a telephone line?
This is just like credit cards, shoved on to people who don’t want them so that they can be charged for the pleasure.
This is also totally agist as it implies old people are stupid, stupid people of all ages can not work lots of things.
This initiative is just another bunch of guys in a quango ordering their new BMWs, in these times of national money problems it should be scrapped.

Mary says:
28 May 2011

I agree with Jacqueline’s point that Government and businesses will save so much from shifting things online that some of those savings must be spent on education for those who don’t know how to use it. We’ve paid our taxes too.

And the money should be spent improving provisions that already exist rather than slashing funding for established pensioners centres and libraries and expecting volunteers to step in. The money is there- don’t be fooled into thinking its not. It’s a well known fact that after the second world war the deficit was much bigger than today’s and we managed to build the NHS!

And Robbie- this discussion is not ageist, I think you’ve missed the point completely. No one has implied pensioners are stupid, quite the opposite- that pensioners should be allowed to be active members of the whole of society, not just left to die quietly on a cruddy state pension with no local services

Mike says:
28 May 2011

The question was: “who is supporting our silver surfers?”

Its all very well getting older people online but where is the follow ups on this, some people just cannot afford a computer and the bits that go with it. How about a lending libary of computers where you can borrow a laptop in your libary or social centr for free, at least a couple of times a week. Someone could also give tuition to them as there are lots of older people who are completly computer savvy. I would like to go to a class that gives me a move up to the next stage, but there is nothing where I live.

I have found this a really worthwhile conversation. I was lucky enough to have a career where, in the early days, it was very useful to do some of the work at home on a typewriter, and when word-processors started to proliferate I was able to have one on my desk which over time mutated into several generations of personal computer. A year or two before I retired I bought a PC for home use and essentially use it for writing letters and e-mails, creating documents, getting information, browsing/research, some purchasing, and doing my personal financial stuff. This has been reasonably satisfying and I suppose I do spend several hours a week on the PC. But as time goes by I get increasingly fed up with this sort of activity and did vow that when my current PC packs up I would not replace it. I do make considerable savings through buying on-line and the convenience of home delivery is valuable as you get older. But when I consider the costs of electricity, printer supplies, broadband, ISP charges, and so on, I often wonder whether the expense is worth it. It annoys me that so many things now have a penalty cost [e.g. utility charges] or an accessibility handicap if you do not transact on-line; I am very worried that when I do give up using the computer life will become quite uncomfortable. Within the next decade we will probably have said good-bye to the local bank branch, the chequebook will be a fond memory, the post office in the nearest town will be overwhelmed [already has queues of seventy or more people because they have closed the village PO’s], and the local library and Council information centre will be appearing in the “Then and Now” galleries on a local newspaper web-site! There seems to be no alternative to continuing to maintain a PC at home. Leaving aside for one moment the interests of those currently in their eighties and nineties, is it realistic to expect those now in their sixties and seventies – who might be entirely competent and computer-literate – to want to continue using computers until the day they die [and what happens with their bank/utility accounts etc then? – that’s another issue]? At some point that we dare not forecast we will probably want to step off this racing roundabout [or be flung off due to financial hardship] and do things in person, over the phone, at an office/shop, by ourselves without being coaxed and sheperded by family and other do-gooders, and without having to accept a future stream of e-mails and other junk as the price of getting things a fraction cheaper. What provision is being made for that version of the future so that our growing elderly population can continue to enjoy life without being penalised in cost or access? Love the PC – hate the slavery it has generated.

This is not very relevant to the conversation but is very thought provoking and well worth posting. I hope it will not discourage people from getting online or for society to recognise the support that is needed to make this happen. But, as John says, we can’t expect computer users to continue until the day they die.

Maybe we should start by thinking about how we treat disabled people who are unable to use a computer, broaden the remit to include those who are no longer able to do so, and finally consider those who don’t want to get online or cannot afford to do so.

As John has pointed out, some services are disappearing because of computer-based alternatives. That’s great for most of the population but not for everyone, and as pointed out in a recent Conversation, many more people are living much longer than in previous generations. I wonder how many will be able to use a computer in later life.

I started with analogue and human computers in the 50s – graduated to Main frames in the 60s to mini computers in the 70s finally to PCs in the 80s – Taught computing at various levels from secondary schools onwards. I now help any pensioner (I hate the term silver surfer) at my pensioners club that want to know how to use their own computer. But I certainly would not want to force anyone to use something they don’t want to know about – any more than I would force someone to watch football..

As has been said before to expect some one on £100 a week to spend their very limited resources on buying. using and maintaining a device that they have no inclination to use is ridiculous.

Unless this appalling Government supply free of charge and free to use at home a computer to all pensioners irrespective of income – then leave us alone!!..

Though somehow I’d sooner them spend that money of social care for the elderly – which is atrocious and getting worse – social care is means tested – a national disgrace! Until social care is available to all – computing is a nonentity

I help run a charity using my own networked computers to find homes for dogs – The vast majority of our members are OAP (our dogs are ideal companions for OAPs) over two thirds do not have a computer – wouldn’t use one if you paid them – They happily use post and telephone to communicate incredibly effectively – and it gets them out of the house to post the letters.

The over use of the computer could be very detrimental to OAPs physical social interaction – where they don;t meet anyone physically from one week to another..

This is about saving money at the pensioner’s expense – something I disagree with – we don’t have enough money to start with. Computers used to free to use at libraries – they are closing them done!

While I understand that there is, or may be, a need to help people understand use of the internet and assist is getting on-line, I do not think that this is a role for councils. Up and down the country councils seems tothink it is their place to interfere in all aspects of life. It isn’t. Their job is to provide those services which either cannot be fulfilled by the private sector or which make no economic sense when provided on an ad hoc basis.

Although by no means a panacea, libraries could make a significant contribution.
They have computers installed for public use and probably serve many of the computer illiterate when book lending.
With a bit of imagination and an onsite teacher with the patience to do it, transferring the skills and enthusiasm necessary should be ‘easy’.

A lot of good comments here however what the would be grey surfers want above all certainty and I regret to say that many of our commercial web sites seem to do their best to create uncertainty. I believe it is called confusion marketing. Take my bank for instance, which is a Which top 3 despite requests on line they cannot even let you know on your account page what interest you earn on that account. You have to hunt all around the bushes to find out! How on earth do they expect those over seventy to remember their passwords without writing them down, dare I say that word! I have over 40! they know and we know most write them down. There are so many locks and chains to undo to get on some sites especially the banks that it is becoming a real hassle to do even the simplest of tasks. Why do we think that elderly people whose hard disk drive is not has fast as it used to be still like to bargain face to face and do most of their business that way? Many of our web sites do their best to confuse and not help. Why is that many of our banks seem to do their best to try to catch customers out rather that help them in order to make money out of them? Though I have a computer and iphone myself i must say as I get older I am finding it difficult to navigate the jungle and if I have a valid complaint I find that many companies hide behind electronic walls to keep the customer at bay! So why would someone of 60 plus be keen on that world?

I have been computer literate for about 15 years I regular surf the net plus all the other work that I do.
The web provides a wealth of knowledge but causes the end of conversation I become so enthralled with what I am finding out I lose all track of time. I can also fault find and fix computers to a bsic level. I have not work in the field and am self taught after learning the basics the rest I learnt on line and from books. I am 70 years old and find the web fasinating source of information from finding about people places and things.