Volunteers open up the digital world to English learners

If you’re reading this then you probably take it for granted that you can do an online search, navigate a website and send an email.  For some of the women who attended our Together Online workshops last week it was the first time they had ever been online. For others it was a chance to improve their knowledge and skills in a friendly, patient environment.

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Together Online is a pilot programme offering one day workshops to people for whom English is a second language.  The workshops are aimed at people who already have basic computer skills but want to improve their knowledge about using the internet.

We started with an activity where the women created their own ‘picture boards’ documenting the main things they would like to learn during the session. Ideas included finding jobs, booking train tickets and flights, searching for online bargains, navigating school websites and keeping in touch with friends and family to name a few. The big surprise of the morning was when Surjit, a 79 year old woman announced confidently that she wanted to learn to Tweet using her tablet! We reassured Surjit that if that was what she wanted to learn then that’s what we would teach her.

Surjit’s example demonstrates the ethos of the day: it was all about reaching personal goals. After a taught session on doing an online search, learners had free rein to focus on their individual interests.  Volunteers were on hand to provide support and a helping hand whilst always encouraging the women to have a go for themselves and learn through trial and error. Taking this approach hopefully means that once they leave the workshop the women will be able to rely on knowledge and intuition rather than rote learning.

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In the afternoon, after covering online safety, the women were set a task to practice their new-found skills. We discussed the fact that being online can not only have a positive effect on our lives as individuals but can help our communities as well.  It turned out that only a few of the women were aware of who their local MPs and Councillors were or how to contact them. By the end of the session they had all successfully found out their names, different ways of contacting them including Facebook and email, and when and where the Councillor’s Advice Bureaux’s took place.  One of the women also spent time searching for voluntary positions and hopes to contribute to her community in this way.

The two workshops were held at Asian Women’s Centre, Hockley and Ileys Community Centre, Smethwick. The learners ranged in age from 24 to 79 and were from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia as well as Romania, Iraq and Afghanistan.  It was a great opportunity for the women to practice their English and learn some new vocabulary as well. The day was made all the better by the delicious vegetarian Indian food and Somali cuisine provided by the centres.

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As ever, our volunteers made the day for us. They patiently supported learners with their individual needs. Many of the women said that whilst their children were regular Internet uses they rarely had the time or inclination to pass on their knowledge. Having someone spend one-on-one time with them made all the difference to their skills and confidence. ‘I’m excited to show my son what I can now do on the computer’ said one of the women after the session.

We are now organising focus groups with the learners and gathering feedback from volunteers and delivery partners so that we can develop the workshops for the future.  The resounding feedback so far has been that people can’t wait for more sessions!