Digital exclusion: "Learning IT skills changed my life"

Annmarie Niles Annmarie Niles is about to start a degree in Digital Media

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In September, Annmarie Niles, 24, starts a degree in Digital Media at London Metropolitan University.

Remarkable, really, given that just 18 months ago she did not know how to send an email.

"If someone had said to me I'd be going to University and doing a degree using computers I'd never ever have believed them," she says.

Ms Niles has been having free computer lessons at the Islington Computer Skills Centre based at Finsbury Library in London. She says the lessons have changed her life.

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"Had it not been for coming here I would never have got on the path I'm on now," she says

"I didn't like computers before because I didn't know how to use them. Now I find that they're not hard at all and very straightforward."

The unemployed mother has also secured an interview for a receptionist job to tide her over the summer.

"I've got a computer at home now too, which I never had before, so I've been sending emails, applying for jobs and surfing the web for jobs," she says.

"There's hardly anything I can't do now."

Building confidence

A new student at the centre is Sarah Nevin, 25. She has been taking computer classes for the last three months.

Sarah Nevin Sarah Nevin is also taking literacy and numeracy courses

"Before, when I turned on a computer, I didn't know what any of the buttons or functions meant. I was scared to press them in case I broke it," she says.

Ms Nevin left school at the age of 15 and says the classes are helping her in every aspect of her life.

"Since coming here I've booked onto literacy and maths courses. I didn't really go to school. I don't think I was ready to learn then, but doing this has made me more confident generally."

Ms Nevin says not only is she hoping to use her newfound skills to work towards a career in social work, she now feels able to help her child with her school work.

"My daughter Erin's only in nursery and they've got three computers there already. She's more computer literate than I am," she says.

"Now I can help her and we can help each other. It's bad if your child is coming home asking you basic questions and you can't even answer them."

Job skills

Gloria Wenham, 48, first came to the centre after being made redundant.

"Every time I went to the job centre, any job that came up wanted computer skills and I'd never used a computer before," she says.

Gloria Wenham Gloria Wenham came to the centre after being made redundant

Bad experiences of computer courses in the past almost put her off learning altogether.

"I tried one course where there were 32 pupils to one teacher. I felt overwhelmed as others were typing away and I didn't even know how to turn the computer on," she says

"I just didn't understand why I wasn't learning and everyone else was."

At the centre, Ms Wenham has learnt how to surf the internet for the first time.

"I'd walk past internet cafes and see people looking things up and writing to people in foreign countries and I just thought 'I can't do that'," she says.

"But now I see the internet as a great thing. It's like a door to another world. I don't feel left out anymore."

Funding worries

The Islington Computer Skills Centre is run by Tracey Armes, who also does most of the teaching.

Tracey Armes Tracey Armes runs the Islington Computer Skills Centre

"For me, the thing I try to teach is confidence," she says.

"People are frightened they're going to make a fool of themselves. But I've never met anyone who wasn't able to do it and once you get people over this it's uphill all the way."

The centre has been teaching computer skills to people in the Islington area for the last 10 years. In the past, funding criteria meant only certain categories of people, such as those over 50 and unemployed, were able to access free courses.

Start Quote

It would be Utopia if everyone could have a computer at home but some people are not going to be able to afford it”

End Quote Martha Lane Fox Digital Inclusion Champion

But while the centre is, at present, free to teach anyone in the borough because it does not receive any funding apart from council money, its future could be in the balance if the council decides to make any cost savings.

"In order to survive in this society you need to have computer skills and it's starting to get to a stage where there's a stigma about it," she says.

"People come to me very embarrassed saying 'I don't even know how to switch one on'. I think it's becoming a bigger deal for people."

Digital exclusion

According to recently released figures, 10.2million adults in the UK, or 21% of the population, have never accessed the internet.

Martha Lane Fox, Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox is the UK's Digital Inclusion Champion

"When we talk to people who have never been online before, they think it's going to be incredibly difficult," says Martha Lane Fox, the Labour government's Digital Inclusion Champion.

For some time, Ms Lane Fox has been leading the Race Online 2012 campaign, which aims to get 4 million 'socially excluded' adults online, a group that includes low wage families and the unemployed.

"If you're unemployed and get online you are 35% more likely to get a job and will earn 10% more than those without the skills," says Ms Lane Fox.

Digital exclusion

  • 10 million UK adults have never used the internet
  • of this group, 4 million are socially excluded
  • of which 38% are unemployed
  • and 19% are in families with children

Source: Race Online 2012

The cost of owning a computer is also a worry for those who are classed as digitally excluded.

"It would be Utopia if everyone could have a computer at home, but some people are not going to be able to afford it," she says.

"We're going to press industry to come up with cheaper ways to get online - whether that's with better smartphones or through the television. That will mean people don't have to rely on expensive hardware."

'Remedial training'

According to survey released this month by business body CBI, 66% of employers are concerned about the basic IT skills of their current workforce.

"Most jobs now require basic IT ability, such as sending emails, using the internet and doing simple word processing so it's worrying that two thirds of employers in the our survey say they're concerned about their employees' IT skills," says Susan Anderson, director of education and skills with the employers' organisation.

Start Quote

Technology pervades the world. People who don't have access to this technology are really missing out”

End Quote Ian Ryder BCS

"A fifth of employers have provided remedial IT training to school leavers and graduates recruited in the last year, and nearly half have given IT training to all other new recruits," she says.

These worries made the news earlier this year when MI5 said it was ditching staff who lack computer skills in a programme of compulsory and voluntary redundancies.

Some experts believe there is a danger that those deemed 'digitally excluded' will start to include those who are unable to keep up with changing technologies.

"In my mind now the digital divide is much more about those that actually understand how to use and apply technology in their lives and their work as a necessity, rather than simply getting access to the technology per se," said Martin Bean, the vice chancellor of the Open University, at an academic conference last month.

But for most, the digital divide remains an issue for people excluded from what the vast majority of us take for granted.

"Technology pervades the world," says Ian Ryder, deputy chief executive of BCS, the chartered institute for IT.

"In offices you can't move for technology. Businesses all have web addresses. People are communicating with other people across the globe. People who don't have access to this technology are really missing out."

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