Page last updated at 10:20 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

Passing on the online baton

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Two hands exchanging baton
The government wants onliners to "pass IT on".

If you are the type of person who updates their tweets every 10 seconds or cannot be further than three feet away from a screen at any time then your expertise is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity.

While the internet is a must-have tool for many, it remains a mystery to others.

20% of the UK population - around 10 million people - remain offline and the minister for Digital Britain Stephen Timms has set an ambitious new target of getting most of them - 7.5 million - online by 2014.

Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox is charged with persuading four million of the "less well-off" to get online in time for the London Olympics in 2012.

She is hoping to get 10,000 businesses and charities signed up to her Race Online campaign this year which could see companies donating equipment as well as pledging to give training to staff who don't use the internet at home.

Simple courses

Martha Lane Fox
Martha Lane Fox is best known as co-founder of

Ms Lane Fox believes that being online is linked to good citizenship and has commissioned studies to prove that being connected not only saves money but increases happiness.

As a key part of her campaign, she wants onliners to "pass IT on" to people they might know who are offline.

UK Online Centres have some 6,000 community units dotted around the country, all dedicating to improving skills and access and it is also behind the pass IT on scheme.

Much of its teaching revolves around an online package known as myguide which offers a series of basic courses on using a keyboard, a mouse, e-mailing, searching and using the internet safely.

Helen Milner, chief executive of UK Online Centres, said it is "popular with users".

"It has been developed with a lot of usability testing and we have 98% satisfaction," she said.

But for Gerry Painter who used to volunteer at his local online centre the courses leave a lot to be desired.

"Myguide is a complete and utter waste of time," he said.

"The courses don't give you practice. They tell you how to do things and you might press the odd button but it just isn't user-friendly or interesting," he said.

He now runs his own courses and he works towards specific needs.

"One lady wanted to set up a webcam and use Skype and we worked on that. Another wanted to know how to go about booking a holiday online," he said.

Kate Norman is another volunteer who finds the myguide tool unhelpful.

"I found that you can't view e-mails with picture attachments because it separates out the pictures from the message," she said.

Volunteers like Mr Painter and Ms Norman are vital if more people are going to be given the skills they need to go online.

But many are restrained by lack of resources and funding.



A season of reports exploring the extraordinary power of the internet, including:

Digital giants - top thinkers in the business on the future of the web
Mapping the internet - a visual representation of the spread of the web over the last 20 years
Global Voices - the BBC links up with an online community of bloggers around the world

Originally Mr Painter and a group of other volunteers were funded by Bristol City Council, which set up wi-fi in the Knowle area of the city and offered refurbished ex-council machines to residents for free.

But, in common with many such schemes, the funding has long since dried up and now local people rely on the good will of the volunteers for both the equipment and training to continue.

The growing number of initiatives helping to promote digital exclusion led Ms Lane Fox to declare at a recent conference on the problem: "No more pilots".

"The [digital inclusion] industry is far too complicated. I have been to meetings where local councils and other projects have never even talked to each other and I find that quite shocking," she said.

Around the country there are plenty of individual schemes aimed at closing the digital divide.

At Chesham High School, for example, pupils from Years 9 to 13 are involved in a scheme to pass on their knowledge of computers to the elderly residents of a nearby Sheltered Housing scheme.

Eight to ten students go down to the centre every week for an hour to help residents send e-mails, browse the web and research their family history.

Barnsley hit the headlines last year when it declared that it would try and persuade the whole town to go online by 2012.

People across the South Yorkshire town will be trained as Digital Outreach Trainers (DOTs) and will work within their own communities to help people with the practicalities of getting on the internet.

But Martin Cantor, in charge of the project, already admits that they might not make it.

"If we get it to 85% then that is incredible progress and it is a trajectory that will keep on running," he said.

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