It is no surprise that technology has become incredibly important to the way we work and live. According to Ofcom’s 2019 report, adults spend on average at least 3 hours and 15 minutes a day online. In 2019, 13% of adults reported that they did not use the internet, with those aged over 54 being much less likely. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, those figures continue to change as the majority of our daily tasks now require activity and proficiency online.
This unreservedly confirms the pivotal role of digital literacy, more crucial now than ever, and a firm reason why numerous digital initiatives are a core part of the Council’s agenda for 2021 and beyond.
Challenges in navigating an increasingly digital world
While emails and internet usage for work and education have been around for some time, the growing market of digital devices has ensured we are now both socialising and spending a greater proportion our leisure time online. Once a resource for news and research, the internet is now a 24/7 hub for online shopping, banking, way finding and streaming services that you can access via PC, tablet or smartphone – not to mention the time we spend scrolling through social media or messaging others. COVID-19 times have only accentuated the gap between those using this technology every day, and those who find themselves in an unfamiliar space with little access or knowledge of the digital world.
Those less fluent with digital tech can find themselves overwhelmed, ‘left behind’ and at a competitive disadvantage in the world of business and work. In some cases, it can also leave people vulnerable to misinformation, fraud and personal security as well as heightening the isolation of individuals less able to ‘connect’ to family friends and the outside world.
Upskilling communities via digital support
With many daily processes and interactions becoming digital, aligned to the City Plan, Sunderland City Council felt it was vital that no one and nowhere was left behind and that businesses and individuals could ‘upskill’ their digital knowledge. This would help the local economy thrive but also add significant value to the UK economy overall.
Initiatives running across the city are supporting more and more residents to upskill their digital capabilities. Detailed below are a number of projects running in the East, West and Coalfields areas of the city.
Go! Get Online
Sunderland City Council’s Go! Get Online initiative was launched in late 2020 to improve digital knowledge, capabilities and confidence across the diverse communities of Sunderland, North East England.
The Go! Get Online project, introduced by Sunderland City Council East Area Committee, is an initiative to ensure that everyone is fully equipped with the digital skills to help them succeed. Whether they’re digital novices or online experts, Go! Get Online can help individuals to become more digitally savvy to better navigate the tech world.
A phased approach to tackling digital literacy
As part of a £200k investment, there were three core phases of the Go! Get Online initiative to educate local communities in an increasingly technology reliant world. This phased approach included:
- Offering tailored technical support
- Face-to-face development of digital literacy
- Marketing workshops for businesses
With each phase being specifically targeted at different areas within the community who wanted to improve their digital proficiency, each phase tackled connectivity, accessibility and the development of digital skills which aimed to help instil confidence and capability for users going online.
- Phase one – Providing technical support
Equipment was rolled out to a number of community buildings and organisations within an allocation of up to £60k of the Go! Get Online investment to focus on ‘upskilling’ members of the community. Tailored to expand on existing knowledge, however limited this may have been, this training helped to deepen people’s understanding of the digital world, and its potential. This gave individuals and organisations the tools and techniques for improved digital proficiency while also enhancing the talents of local people.
- Phase two – Digital accessibility and development for digital novices
Newcomers to the technical world benefitted from ‘face-to-face’ community development. This phase was designed for those who had zero or very basic IT knowledge and was tailored to people’s needs to help them carry out the ‘everyday’ tasks which have now moved online. From safe online shopping, internet job searches and managing banking or Universal credit, this phase covered the essential digital skills that allow people to live their lives, giving improved access to resources and limiting their exclusion.
- Phase three – Marketing workshops to create digital champions
Go! Get Online also delivered a series of marketing workshops for specific East VCS Groups to foster a new wave of digital champions in the region. This involved the creation of their own social media marketing campaign to promote their services via the Sunderland Information Point, with each nominating their own ‘digital champion’. This individual became the key contact for their organisation and encouraged networking, connections and greater understanding of the benefits the digital world brings to businesses.
Go! Get Online from April 2021
Go! Get Online is evolving for 2021, building on the success of the first three phases, the project will continue to drive impact regarding increased digital inclusion, breaking down barriers and supporting those most divided from technology across communities.
There is a strong focus in this new phase, launched in April 2021, on ICT reuse, which means that there is a core aim to address digital isolation by building digital skills, capacity and confidence across the East area.
Following careful evaluation of the phases completed in 2020, five main at risk groups have been identified who are most prone to digital exclusion, namely:
- Low-income families
- People with physical and learning disabilities
- People over 65
- BME communities
Individuals within these groups who lack digital skills and equipment are most likely to miss out on seeing and accessing online job opportunities, whilst school pupils without access to the internet at home are disadvantaged compared to those with internet access and there is an ever widening gap relating to health inequalities.
The project will build on the good practice delivered and established by locally rooted organisations, employing multi skilled staff who will proactively identify and engage local people and provide access to IT equipment and the internet.
The model will, be further strengthened by the addition of new partners able to provide space and routes to particularly disadvantaged communities as the project strives to provide fair access for all to support and skills development.
To help households access equipment, a new loan equipment scheme will be provided in partnership with ProTech, a key partner working with the council to establish a ‘Reuse ICT Scheme’ based on the Durham Reboot model Reboot (digitaldurham.org). This scheme will see hubs act as donation points to accept disused kit from individuals and businesses, which Protech will then wipe clean of all data, install Windows 10 and then sell the ICT equipment at a minimum fee to help sustain and future proof access to affordable hardware to charities and members of the VCS Area Network who can then pass the items onto households in need, via a loan scheme.
Media Savvy CIC
City centre based social enterprise Media Savvy CIC has been awarded £100,000 to run the West Area Committee’s programme to improve access to ICT to reduce social isolation.
The West Area Committee is running the initiative until March 2024 to help as many residents as possible to digitally upskill.
Key aims and objectives of Media Savvy for this project include helping:
- To establish and maintain six digital community hubs
- To establish and maintain 12 mini digital community hubs
- To facilitate workshops and meetings at these hubs
- West Area residents to access appropriate digital training
- West Area residents to increase their confidence in IT and digital
- Residents to access WiFi via community hubs
- To signpost residents to suitable VCSE (Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise) services
- Provide (digital/IT) IAG (Information Advice and Guidance)
- To recruit volunteers and train as digital champions
About Media Savvy CIC
Founded in 2010, Media Savvy CIC is a North East based multi-award-winning social enterprise. Their core purpose is to boost employability skills and creativity as well as promoting education and, in some cases, recovery and rehabilitation.
Driven by an ethos of learning via fun and engagement, Media Savvy CIC drives social impact across a variety of community and commercial projects across the region.
Sustainable digital skills
Increasing the digital competencies of individuals goes beyond just teaching the technical skills they need; it is just as much about the attitudes and behaviours needed to succeed and have confidence that make the real difference.
For more information about Media Savvy, contact Haythem Tawfiq at firstname.lastname@example.org
Coalfields’ Digital Inclusion Project – ‘Coalfields Communities Connected’ and ‘RUready4UC’ project
The Coalfields area has a Digital Inclusion project (Coalfields Communities Connected) and also a Universal Credit project (RUready4UC), both of which were born from a collective belief that equipping individuals with the means to improve their digital skills will widen their participation and access to greater opportunities.
Growing digital skills with Coalfields Communities Connected
By increasing public access to computers and raising awareness of services available within the Coalfields area, this provides participants with appropriate training and qualifications to increase their individual digital skills and develop confidence.
The programme will identify the initial need of each participant and deliver a tailored plan of support to enable them to become self-sufficient in the effective access of digital services and programmes.
Springboard aims to support the development of sustainable communities, delivering training to ensure that people have the skills needed for work and life. Building on the work Springboard have completed, liaison will continue with residents and possible participants across the Coalfields area. This collaborative approach will ensure opportunities for innovative methods of delivery are identified and realised, utilising the skills already in place.
By developing the role of digital champions, the project will allow local people who have participated within the programme or wish to help those to improve their skills, to take a proactive role in supporting others in their community.
Increasing accessibility with a flexible approach
Informal support will include drop-in sessions in the Springboard Community Hub, previously the ‘Hetton Centre Library’, and for those closer to the labour market and seeking employment, timetabled programmes of study will allow individuals to attend small group taught sessions covering employability training and other vocational training/qualifications, as well as work experience opportunities. These additional services are offered in kind and are free of charge to participants in receipt of a benefit.
Signposting will inform participants of other drop-in sessions at partner sites to maximise accessibility for local residents situated within the different Coalfields wards.
Sessions will provide support on:
- The basics of using a computer or digital device, including tablets and smart phones
- Accessing the internet for online shopping or research for personal interest, sending emails, social media such as Facebook and Instagram
- Managing money online
- Staying safe online
- Accessing GP services online and NHS choices
- Facilitating claimants entries onto Universal Jobmatch and Universal Credit Full Service (UCFS)
By the end of the project the residents of the Coalfields area will be more informed about the range of provision in the area, more confident to use IT equipment and on-line services and be equipped with the knowledge, qualifications and personal contacts to support others in their community who may not possess digital skills or the confidence to approach organisations.
Navigating Universal Credit
The move to Universal Credit (UC) coupled with the delay in payments of several weeks, has increased the number of people with no income or reduced income who are consequently experiencing periods of crisis where they have had to rely on foodbanks or seek financial support from family and friends to manage. Helping people to migrate onto UC as quickly and as easily as possible is the main goal of the RUready4UC project.
Shiney Row Advice and Resource Project (ShARP) provide a range of advice and guidance services to support and develop communities, such as explaining welfare benefits, debt management, housing and employment, as well as offering access to training.
Springboard and ShARP will continue to work on the next phase of RUready4UC project – a project aimed at raising awareness of public access computers in the Coalfields and supporting participants in making their applications for Universal Credit.
Springboard outreach sessions will provide support on accessing the internet for online entries onto Universal Jobmatch, the new DWP ‘Find a Job’ portal and Universal Credit Full Service (UCFS).
Many new claimants, who have recently been made redundant, will need help and support on how to deal with financial adjustments and which benefit to apply for. Tutors working on the project will work hard to remove potential barriers arising from such a rise in unemployment due to the COVID-19 crisis, hoping to help move claimants back into employment.
Bridging functional skills gaps
Where there is a skills gap of maths and English competency, individuals will have the opportunity to achieve City & Guilds qualifications in Information Communication Technology (ICT), maths and English from foundation level to level 2, as well as work on enhancing their employability skills.
For more information about ‘Coalfields Communities Connected’ and ‘RU Ready for UC’, contact Ken Lamb at email@example.com
Benefits of improving digital literacy in the North East
Expanding knowledge is at the core of the Council’s digital initiatives, but there are so many benefits to individuals, businesses, the community and the economy from improved digital literacy and investment across the city.
For businesses in the region, these include:
- Improved infrastructure – This benefits existing and new businesses across the city, to technically mobilise our people and businesses to withstand and emerge from the current global health pandemic
- Encouraging economic growth – Helping the city’s economy recovery long-term from the impact of COVID-19
- Creating strong reputations – For businesses, becoming more digital savvy can bring their services to wider audiences, establish their identity and improve communications whilst ensuring a fair competitive edge in the market
- Connecting with others – On a business level, digital fluency can improve communications and networking with other businesses, candidates and customers
For communities in the region, the benefits include:
- Increased confidence – People can feel safe and included by having knowledge and access to the digital world without worry for online safety via an increased understanding of protecting themselves online and a stronger understanding of how the internet works
- Reduced exclusion – Individuals will have the ability to carry out tasks such as applying for jobs, loans and other essential needs without the worry of ‘missing out’ on key information or competitive disadvantage
- Reducing social isolation – Improved access to online communities, offering a connection to others and a vital line to friends, family and new opportunities for social and economic inclusion
- Access to key resources – With work, housing, banking, education and medical documentation moving online, individuals can have better access to these resources and routes of communication, reducing exclusion further
Transforming lives and opportunities
The impact of digital technology and the potential it has to transform our personal and professional lives, really outlines why digital capabilities are so important.
Ensuring individuals are equipped with the right digital knowledge, skills and attitudes is relevant today and into the future. Sunderland City Council’s focus on improving digital literacy as well as bridging the digital divide, highlights its smart approach and commitment to leaving no one and nowhere behind on its digital transformation journey.
Excellent digital capabilities include a positive attitude towards technology and innovation via a digitally literate workforce for today and the future. By equipping individuals locally with the skills and attribute they need to succeed, we are not only bolstering the positive social impact of digital upskilling, but also enabling a capable workforce armed with the skills needed to live, learn, work and participate in a digital society.
Developing digital capabilities at all ages, at home, school and in the workplace, will bring tangible benefits to residents, allowing them to compete and enjoy the many benefits of better connectivity, suffering less isolation and reaping the greater opportunities that the digital world will bring.