When setting out to transform our digital services Stockport Council committed to do this without leaving anyone behind. Two years ago we established our ‘DigiKnow’ alliance to deliver digital support and skills through established community groups and organisations who are already providing social support and are already trusted by residents. We hoped this would allow up to create a movement that would have staying power beyond the initial project term.
The model worked and the Alliance has grown to include 13 strategic partners, 35 community groups and organisations and many ‘Digital Champion’ volunteers who, between them, have already supported 8,500 residents with digital skills training at community groups and venues such as libraries, community centres and Citizens Advice. Read the full report.
In early March we were awarded £50,000 from the GMCA ‘Get Greater Manchester Digital’ fund to build on this. As we moved into our third year of DigiKnow activity, we planned to use the funding to extend digital inclusion support in the community, to expand our network further and reach new groups of residents who do not have digital skills but would like to learn. But life as we had known it was about to change.
A surge in motivation
The three main barriers to getting online are recognised as being:
- cost of equipment and data
- lack of motivation
- lack of skills and confidence
Our focus over the first two years of activity had been mainly to build skills and confidence. Our model nudged motivation by demonstrating the benefits of digital via known interests in the community group setting. And we relied on the availability of free to use devices and Wi-Fi at libraries to overcome the cost barrier.
Then all at once our gentle carrot-like motivational approach was replaced overnight with a huge coronavirus stick as the pandemic forced lock down, libraries were closed and face to face support was no longer possible. Suddenly people became aware that they could not live or shield without the internet and we saw motivation to get online rocket. Whether to complete school work, order shopping online, find out information or keep up with family, being locked down without digital meant being literally cut off from the world and essential services.
The shielding letters that were sent out to people contained links to where to find further information or how to get help online – yet it’s estimated that 20% of our Stockport population can’t access this. Mutual groups popped up in communities to fill the breach, purchase food and essentials, pick up prescriptions and keep in touch with isolated people, but a 100% digital community would have meant people wouldn’t have needed to rely on these as much.
Adapting support to meet changing need
Research shows that digital inclusion activities are most effective when driven by the needs and interests of individuals. We listened closely to what our community partners and our service users were saying, and within a week of lockdown our community partner Starting Point had retrained 12 Digital Champions to offer support via the phone, zoom and through screen sharing.
We created new content on our website to support digital skills learning with practical advice for anyone already online who wants to improve their digital skills or who can help others to get online for the first time. Guidance offered includes help to use digital methods to stay in touch with family, shop online, bank online and stay safe online.
With the support of the community Digital Champions we were soon able to launch a dedicated DigiKnow Helpline to take requests from Stockport residents who have access to a smartphone, tablet or computer, but needed help getting online for the first time. As calls to the Helpline increased, we established a buddy scheme that connects both new and old learners across the borough with Digital Champions.
By mid-April, learners who previously attended sessions in a community venue run by Starting Point were able to attend online sessions in place of their former face-to-face sessions.
Some community organisations have also turned to Digiknow for help to reach their clients digitally. We were able to help organisations such as Stockport Advocacy with Zoom training so they can run sessions to support families with children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and we’ve helped a church reach its congregation
Key numbers since lockdown
- 328 calls and texts to Helpline for support from a Digital Champion
- 78 Zoom digital group support sessions
- 468 remote 1-2-1 support sessions provided by 20 virtual Digital Champions
- 11 voluntary organisations helped with using Zoom so they can continue to provide support to residents
The success of these new classes has meant we have needed to recruit and train more virtual digital champions and we have been actively promoting this in the council’s newsletters and social media channels. We are keen to emphasise that to volunteer as a Digital Champion you only need basic digital skills as there’s video training to teach you ways to support learners. Many of our volunteers find it rewarding, such as Paddy McDonald, who says: “You get a kick out of teaching them and they get a kick out of learning. It works both ways. You feel so good at the end of it when someone’s learnt something. Everybody can learn, can’t they? It’s just a matter of getting the right help.” You can read more of his story on our DigiKnow web pages.
Devices and data
Adapting our digital skills offer was the natural first step but a more fundamental change to our offer was required to address the sudden lack of access to public computers and wifi.
Through a combination of projects supported by the Department for Education, the DevicesDotNow scheme and Stockport Council funds, we have already distributed several hundred devices and connectivity to the most vulnerable in our communities who don’t have access to the internet:
The restrictions that have been placed on care homes through social distancing and quarantine requirements has had significant impact on residents and their loved ones, leaving many vulnerable residents without their usual contact with friends and family. To address this, the Council has bought and distributed 68 tablets, preloaded with 4G sim cards, to all 60 of the borough’s care and nursing homes and supported living schemes across the borough. The community digital champions are supporting the care homes to use the devices.
Amongst the hundreds of isolated care home residents across Stockport to have benefitted so far is Nora Holtom, 101, who is a resident at Ashbourne House Care Home in Gatley. Nora, who had not seen her family for over eight weeks, has now been able to speak to her family since the arrival of the tablet last week, including her granddaughter Keely who lives in South Africa.
Nora said: “It was very special to see her again, especially as she used to fly over every year but now the flights have been stopped, she cannot travel. It was very magical to not just speak to her, but to see her too, it made me so very happy.”
Keely added: “It was so special and emotional to see my grandma again. I haven’t seen her since we celebrated her 100th birthday together, so it meant the world, especially living so far away.”
Laptops have also been distributed to care leavers and children in the borough with a social worker who have no means of completing their school work remotely. This DfE initiative, supported by Stockport Council colleagues has meant that children and young people can utilise digital technology to improve their access to remote education materials and stay in contact with social care services during the coronavirus pandemic.
FutureDotNow are coordinating industry action through a campaign, DevicesDotNow, which asks for donations of tablets, smartphones, laptops, sim cards, portable hotspots, dongles, other connectivity or emergency funding. Starting Point have so far received 18 devices from this initiative, which have been allocated to the elderly and vulnerable families without access to the internet and the devices, together with the support of a Digital Champion to use the device.
One such recipient was Mable, an elderly lady, living on her own and self-isolating due to her age and underlying health conditions. Referred to us by a neighbour volunteer, who was supporting her with shopping through the local mutual aid support group, Mable was given a tablet and pre-loaded SIM, matched up with a digital champion to support her learning and is now online and video calling her family in Australia and Canada! You can watch Mable explain the impact of this in this video.
JP, another recipient, was referred to our digital champions by a senior independent living co-ordinator from Stockport Homes. In his late sixties, he is self-isolating as he has COPD and had lung cancer two years ago. JP had digital skills but, since the closure of our libraries, no access to a device or the internet. Thanks to the donation of a laptop and pre-loaded WIFI card, he can now go online and organise his online banking and shopping again, resulting in him feeling less vulnerable and more supported.
We know digital isn’t the answer to everything, but striving to become a 100% digital borough will balance many inequalities. To bring us one step closer to that dream is the near £10,000 funding Starting Point has secured through the Stockport Local Fund, to set up Stockport’s first digital device lending library. The vision is for devices to be free to borrow and will come with free access to the internet. Support getting online will be available from community Digital Champions. We hope the device lending scheme will reach new groups of residents who have previously been put off from learning digital skills because of the cost of kit and connectivity.
As leading digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation say: “Digital inclusion was already important; now it’s fundamental’. The foundations we put in place 2 years ago and the relationships and mutual trust we built over this period has been vital in enabling us to quickly react to the pandemic. Our local partners constantly have their ear to the ground, picking up valuable insight on emerging need and I hope you’ll agree from the things we’ve collectively put in place, we’ve been listening and quick to act.