The rollout of superfast broadband across the UK will see around 90% of the population benefitting from better and more reliable internet access by 2015. But as Digital Unite has long maintained, good connectivity is all well and good but what’s the point if many people don’t have the necessary skills and knowledge to use it.

With an estimated 68,000 residents who’ve never been online and many more with poor digital skills Wiltshire Council came to a similar conclusion. In 2010 they established the Wiltshire Online programme, a £16 million initiative to support the delivery of standard broadband to virtually all areas and to help ensure that everyone in Wiltshire was given the opportunity to be digital literate and confident users of technology.

As Jenny Wilcockson, Digital Literacy Co-ordinator for Wiltshire Online explains: “One of the biggest challenges we face is engaging those who feel that computers and the internet is not for them or who are just too afraid to use it, particularly older and disabled people and families on a low income. We want to enable as many people in Wiltshire as possible to use modern technology so they can enjoy the benefits that an improved broadband service will bring.”

Building a Digital Champion army

An important part of the digital literacy programme was to create a solid foundation from which teaching and learning could be sustained and able to flourish. Building an army of Digital Champions volunteers who could educate and enthuse non-computer users in local communities was identified as an essential element of the overall vision.

A two month pilot in Melksham was launched to create the first band of volunteers. The call for confident and enthusiastic users of computers and the internet who could share their skills, knowledge and passion with others generated an overwhelming response. 13 Digital Champions and one volunteer co-ordinator were successfully recruited aged between their mid-20s to their 70s and ranging from the retired to those working full time with evenings to spare. Through library drop-in events and one-to-one sessions they are now actively helping people to fully embrace modern technology.

The Wiltshire Online team give general support with soft skills training and access to ‘how to’ resources which include Digital Unite’s very own learning guides. They also provide a match-making service, ensuring that the specific needs of the learners are matched with the Champion with the most relevant skills.

Jenny adds: “I have also been developing my own digital skills and teaching techniques by studying the Digital Unite’s Digital Champion ITQ. The course has been a big help with increasing my computer know-how and generating new ideas for community-related digital literacy activities so that I can better support our volunteer network and the Wiltshire Online programme.”

Working in partnership

An extensive promotional campaign advertising the service and helpline number is supported by a number of local organisations including Wiltshire Library Service, Wiltshire Citizens Advice, Wiltshire Money, Age UK Wiltshire, Age UK Salisbury District, Learning Curve and Community First to name but a few. Where learners have specific accessibility needs they are referred to IT Can Help, a national charity with a network of volunteers who provide free computer assistance to people with disabilities.

Jenny comments: “The essence of keeping it local so that the Digital Champions can support their immediate communities is working really well and we have seen and heard some terrific stories. One particular resident, Betty, is an 86 year old grandmother who is an active Facebook user and has a Kindle but admits that she does need a bit of help with other aspects and this is where our Digital Champions can really make a difference.”

The scheme is now underway in Salisbury and Chippenham and, by taking this phased approach, it is hoped that Digital Champions will be recruited for all of the county’s 18 community areas by summer 2013.

Plans ahead

Aside from the Digital Champion recruitment other activities include a dedicated website where people can register for help, test their broadband speed and access learning resources and useful web links. A laptop refurbishment project where old council laptops are modernised and sold on to residents on low income, older people or people with disabilities for £50 is also being pursued.

In June 2012 the roll out of free public Wi-Fi in all of Wiltshire libraries began in Melksham and Bradford on Avon which once complete will be extended to youth and community centres, community hubs and council operated leisure centres. A directory of all of the public places Wiltshire residents can get online is currently in development.

Jenny concludes: “Once the foundations of our digital literacy programme have been laid we will be looking to take it to the next level. Ideally this would include working with businesses to open up offices for digital literacy events and to donate equipment and also to link with schools with inter-generational activities.

“For now, though we are concentrating on the task in hand which is to build our network of excellent Digital Champions and to make sure everyone is aware of this terrific help and support that is available to them.”

The Wiltshire Online programme is a shining example of how investment in IT infrastructure and interfaces is being matched with an investment in skills and support to use them, the essential combination to ensuring people get to benefit from the social and economic integration that being online provides. We wish them every success.

For more information about Wiltshire Online visit their website.

For information about how Digital Unite can help people and organisations with digital skills learning read more about our online courses and learning guides.

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