Easy ways to end digital exclusion

1 Apr 16

Nearly one in five people in the UK lack basic online skills, and do not realise what they are missing. Banks and other companies are acting on this

I have got something to show you,” she said in a slightly teasing tone. Almost shyly, she slid a new mini-tablet from her handbag, saying: “It looks great, doesn’t it? But I haven’t got the faintest idea how to use it.”

Jane then explained that her daughter had moved to New Zealand and her parting gift was this piece of unfathomable technology. When I looked at it with her, I saw her daughter’s email address was set up and other things were in place to make it easy for Mum to keep in touch. I connected it to the wifi and we emailed New Zealand. To my surprise, we got an immediate response, followed by another email, which led to picture swapping and FaceTime. Suddenly Jane, whose only technology hitherto had been a rather ancient mobile phone, became a convert and desperate to learn more.

In our connected world, it is easy to overlook the estimated 9.5 million people – nearly 20% of the UK population – who lack the basic online skills needed to send and receive email, use a search engine, browse the internet and complete online forms. Over 5.1 million people over 65 in the UK have never been online. Many, like my friend Jane, are not aware of what they are missing.

A typical older internet user can save over £740 a year on household bills thanks to online shopping, comparison sites and lower travel costs, which make a big difference to the average pensioner with an income of just £18,000. It also helps to keep minds active, maintain communication and stimulate new interests.

Getting people online also makes good sense for public service providers and retailers. Digital transactions cost about 20 times less than those made by telephone and 50 times less than those made face-to-face.

Barclays bank has recognised the benefits of upskilling staff, customers and wider society, and provides free support to anyone who wants it. Its Digital Eagles – 15,000 staff based in branches across the UK – help novice internet users with tasks such as online banking, shopping and using Skype. You don’t even have to be a customer. Barclays also holds ‘tea and teach’ sessions and has developed an online Coding Playground to excite children and help parents to understand about developing programming skills.

Another big initiative is a free online interactive learning resource, the Barclays Digital Driving Licence, which is endorsed by City & Guilds. This provides high-quality training ranging from A Beginner’s Guide to the Internet, through social media and online security, up to Building an App and Cognitive Computing. It was originally developed for use by bank staff; more than 80,000 people have now registered to use it, including individuals, small and medium-sized enterprises and large public sector bodies like the Department for Work and Pensions. The bank’s target is to reach a million people worldwide.

Enthusing people like my friend Jane is only the first step. It is easy to be discouraged and confused when you take your first few tentative steps into the digital world. Barclays and a few other companies are showing real vision and leadership in bringing down the barriers that exclude large parts of our population from the benefits of the digital world, and backing this with tangible support and resources. The least that we can do is to help to spread the word.

  • John Thornton
    John Thornton

    John Thornton is the director of e-ssential Resources and an independent adviser on business transformation, financial management and innovation.

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