Page last updated at 09:22 GMT, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Net offers lifeline for nonliners

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

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'Nonliners' surf the web for the first time: Maxine Bowler runs a centre in Sheffield to train people who have never used the internet.

Ten years ago a job seeker would have gone to a job centre to find work, a hobbyist might have joined an evening class to pursue a love of art and a person struggling to pay their bills may have turned to social services. Now they go online.

There is still a digital divide in the UK with 20% of the population - about 10 million people - still having no experience of using computers or the internet.

But increasingly people are seeing a value in technology and many are getting their first taste of the internet at one of 6,000 UK Online centres dotted around the country.

Heeley Online Centre in Sheffield is typical, and its daily sessions are always busy.

John Smylie, an 80-year-old retired engineer, is a frequent visitor.

John Smylie
John says the web has opened new windows on the world

He bought a computer in December after "negotiating" with his wife but quickly realised he didn't really know how to use it.

"I was at the wheelbarrow stage. It was going in every direction apart from the one I wanted it to go in," he said.

What he wanted to do was some quite sophisticated web browsing.

"I wanted to look at work from the Whitbread Gallery and the Louvre and I'd heard about a man on YouTube who did practical art demonstrations," he said.

He is now learning how to use e-mail and wants to be able to send pictures to his two sons in Australia.

"I've discovered it isn't called a photograph, it is called an attachment. You have to learn a whole new vocabulary," he said.

But it is worth it, he thinks.

"It opens up a lot of windows on the world. I am not just looking at art galleries but other information on the cultures in other countries. It was a narrow world that I was brought up in and now I have a much wider picture of the world," he said.

Suzanne Gambles
Suzanne found the centre made both big and small changes to her life

Suzanne Gambles has more dramatic praise for the centre, claiming it has "saved her life".

Initially it provided her with an e-mail account which allowed her to communicate with her utility company over bills she was unable to pay.

But, after years out of work and without any self-confidence, she also used it to build social skills and find a job. She has recently started work as a cleaner.

"It has changed my life amazingly. Without it I wouldn't have sorted out the bills, I wouldn't have got a job. For me it's the best thing in the area," she said.

And it hasn't just been the big things in her life that the net has helped with.

"I saw a bird on my doorstep and I came here and we typed in the details and found out it was a woodpecker," she said.

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Maxine Bowler runs the Heeley online centre and has recently successfully bid for an extra £45,000 in funding out of a pot of £32 million made available to UK Online centres.

She plans to use the money to extend the number of outreach projects she does in the area.

Currently she works with 15 sheltered housing units in the city as well as running classes for people with learning difficulties on a nearby estate.

These classes are not without their difficulties - laptops do not always work, access is not easy to get and, currently the centre is relying on a set of dongles - devices which allow machines to connect to the internet over a 3G mobile connection - which don't always connect.

The BBC went with Ms Bowler on her first visit to the Park View Lodge sheltered housing unit.

The new recruits were keen but the registration process - to a course known as myguide - was very slow and in the hour's session none of them actually got beyond the myguide site.

The myguide course has been criticised by some as not being the best introduction to the web although UK Online Centres report a 98% satisfaction rate among those who use the training scheme.

Getting older people online is one of the main priorities of the UK's Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox. It is estimated that only 30% of those of retirement age are online.

Residents of sheltered housing units in Sheffield actively voted to boost their computer literacy skills which illustrates how computers are starting to have an impact on the traditional turned-off older generation.

"The reps from each centre had to vote for which activity they wanted. We were up against chairobic classes and Age Concern who were offering day trips and other activities. I thought trips out would win but they chose us," explained Ms Bowler.

Irene Thorpe
Irene struggled to see the screen

One resident, 63 year old Chris Garrett, is very computer-literate and has his own PC on which he is writing about his life as a singer with sixties rock and roll group Raye Duvall and the Rockmates.

But others had never touched a computer in their lives.

Mr Garrett is keen to persuade his partner, Kathy Skinner, to give it a go and both of them see the internet as a powerful tool in their campaign to get better living conditions for older people.

82-year-old John Beachell has several good reasons to go online. He wants to e-mail his sister in Melbourne who he is no longer able to visit in person as well as explore his own colourful past as an actor with parts in films including the British comedy Brassed Off.

He doesn't seem particularly impressed by his first taste of computers.

"What I've learnt today is not a lot and I'll have forgotten it again in 24 hours," he said.

85-year-old Irene Thorpe has never used a computer but comes with her own set of skills as she used to be a typist.

Her issue is that she "can't see the screen very well" and she finds the keyboard fiddly.

She is not entirely sure why she wants to go online although contact with her grandson, a footballer with Sheffield Wednesday's youth team, is a big incentive.

For residents in the sheltering housing unit as well as at the day centre which caters for people with learning difficulties, the classes have a value beyond the key skills they are teaching.

"Loneliness is one of our biggest problems. This doesn't replace face to face contact but it makes a huge difference to people's lives," said Ms Bowler.



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