Technology: Switching on

Marsali Taylor discovers that increasing numbers of older Shetlanders are learning the benefits of the internet, while the appeal of “social networking sites” is also now beginning to reach out beyond young people.

When I was at school, we did computer programming. We asked a series of yes/no questions and turned them into “strings”; then the class had a rare excursion out of school to Moray House, where our programmes were fed into a computer that completely filled a medium-size room. If I remember rightly, the programme demonstrated how a computer could tell you whether it was safe or not to cross a road.

Fast-forward 35 years. Now almost every household has one or more computers, which would fit into a cardboard box or even into a briefcase. The average ten-year-old awes their elders by zapping in and out of websites, uploading and downloading pictures and text, and disappearing into virtual worlds. Homework these days is rarely hand-written. Every firm has a website giving an opportunity to shop online, and more and more of us do. Airport check-in? Get on the computer. Committee minutes, notices of meetings, urgent appeals, offers of a fortune, Christmas letters and photos whirl through cyberspace. Get your daily dose of Shetland news, or catch up on the chat with Shetlink.

Dictionaries are a thing of the past, just ask Spellcheck. Encyclopaedias: Google it. I stop writing regularly to check up on “common Norwegian surnames” or esoteric information like the size of an armada culverin (12 foot or so and very heavy). Even toddlers can check up on Thomas the Tank Engine and In the Night Garden on-line, and adults can catch that episode of Little Dorrit or The Radio 4 Book of the Week. This article comes to you through e-mail: I write it in my room in Aith, send it to editor Malachy in Fair Isle, and he sends it on to Lerwick to be printed.

What did we ever do without it?

But what about the people who grew up without computers, and who feel baffled by the language and daunted by the hardware? David Thomson of Shetland Library is one of the tutors for the “Computing for the over-50s” course. I asked him about the numbers of folk interested.

“The uptake’s excellent,” he said. “There’s even a waiting list. We targeted the over-50s because folk are happier working in the same age group – they share the same outlook on technology, and starting to learn again. We see a lot of folk around retirement age, but we’ve had folk well through their 80s. Computing can be very daunting; the machines are everywhere, and everyone else seems to be using them. The skills are taken for granted, but if you don’t have these skills it’s not easy or straightforward. Asking someone to help can sometimes put older folk off even more, because the “helper” can try to explain far too much, far too quickly. And they often provide technical information that the person’s not really needing.”

“Our course was developed in a collaboration between the Adult Literacy Service and the Library. It aimed to bring computing into literacy learning. The Adult Literacy folk really gave us an insight into what it’s like to go back to the beginning. Targeting core skills is essential, and not giving folk too much information. Our course is all written out in very plain English, with clear pictures and logical sequencing. It’s very well put together, and well presented. We try to show folk the best way to do things from the outset – it’s a bit like being a driving instructor, your learner can maybe screech round corners with one hand on the wheel, but they’ll get on much better in the end if they learn correctly from the start.

“We want to teach the absolute basics: how to get on the machine, how to use internet and e-mail. We always ask, on the first session, what people want to learn. The answers are usually the same: they want to communicate using e-mail, with friends and relatives in other places; they want to go on the internet to get information, find weather forecasts, that kind of thing. And, this being Shetland, they want to do mail-order. We offered Microsoft Word, but folk just weren’t so interested in that, nor in Spreadsheets – that was just a blank.

“It’s really rewarding when people see what they can do. I had one lady with a son in Ireland. She sent him her first ever e-mail, and the answer came back in five minutes – she was just amazed.

“With the internet, folk can be a bit stumped initially – they like the idea of the web but they’re not sure what they’re looking for. I suggest things – if someone comes from Unst, I say, ‘Well, try searching for Unst’, or a lot of local men are interested in marine history, naval history, or the Greenland whaling, so I tell them to type that into a search engine, and then they’re away.

“Folk are interested in digital photo work too, but that’s more advanced than our standard class. We show them how to attach photos to an e-mail, but that’s usually enough. What we do in our class is make sure that we give folk solid basic skills, and then they are prepared to go on to do other courses, where they can improve their skills and really explore their own interests.”

A quick scroll through the 2008/9 adult learning evening class gives a huge range of ways to use computers. Most of the classes are free, others charge £35 for ten two hour sessions. The dearest is the European Computer Driving Licence, which is £180 for a 35-week course. “Familiarity with computers” is required for most of them, but there are a number which are suitable for total beginners.

I asked Roselyn Fraser, who organises the adult learning classes, what had been the thinking behind so many courses.

“It’s in response to demand,” she told me. “At the end of our series of classes, we give an evaluation form, which asks what types of classes people would like to see, and we encourage folk to phone in requests. We hold learning events in the communities, too, where people can tell us what they want. We seem to have something new every year.”

“We try to tailor the classes to what people want – we’re designed to be flexible. We even had one group who were looking for digital photography, but their tutor realised that what they really wanted was desktop publishing, and luckily he knew about that too, so that’s what they did.

“We work in partnership with the Shetland College Community Learning Centres. We try to get local folk who’re willing to give time to tutor in their area. Of course, tutor availability affects what classes we can run – we’ve been very fortunate this year, with a number of people willing to be involved.”

What can people learn? There were the courses which focused on using the computer as an office and information tool; general computing skills, at beginner or intermediate level; web design for beginners; computing for families, for a primary school child and accompanying adult, including Google, e-mail and the internet; introduction to the world wide web; communicating confidently with computers, focusing on letters, e-mails and posters; word-processing; desktop publishing. A number of courses on specific programmes were also offered: “Excel at number crunching”, “Microsoft Office specialist” and “Upgrading to Vista”.

“The voluntary sector in partnership with HIE Shetland have been running computer courses for businesses, so these ‘business style’ courses have been taken up more by people who want to do personal development, or improve their job prospects,” Roselyn told me. “Mostly, it’s people who want to develop an interest.”

Craft interests also come out strongly: digital photobooks, calendars, scrapbooking, card-making and computing for Christmas. Family historians could go to “Digital Family Trees”, and a range of different digital photography courses and video editing courses were on offer.

Nearly every area of Shetland had ten or more different courses running, and the programme had reached out to the outer isles too, with courses in Foula.

The response to the courses has been enthusiastic. All the courses have run, meaning a minimum of six students in rural areas, eight in Lerwick or Scalloway. In total, with over 50 courses running, that could be as many as 300 people who’ve attended a computer-focused session or series of sessions this academic year.

* * *

The latest way to communicate with people using computers is of course the social networking sites (SNS): Facebook, Bebo, My Space, and all the others. I did a survey in Aith school to find out how popular these were at what age groups: a small Shetland sample of 148 children and 40 adults.

The youngest school pupil I found who used an SNS was in P5: Bebo to talk to family: “I get to see my auntie’s videos and talk to my dad.” By P6, just three of the eight pupils were non-users, and the other five used Bebo, MSN and Facebook. Again there was some parental supervision here: “I can speak to relatives but no-one else” one child said. Another emphasised the visual nature of these sites: “I like that you can speak to people and look at videos and photos.” Even at this young age there were two keen users who were on SNSs for up to two hours daily.

The percentage using SNSs increased as I talked to P7. In the class of 20, only 4 didn’t use SNSs. Six pupils were light users (one to two hours weekly); a further seven were medium users (up to an hour daily), and three were heavy users (over an hour daily). The most popular sites were Bebo and Club Penguin. Rather worryingly though, some of these primary age children were using it to “chat with friends and make new ones”, or “make buddies”. My survey was strictly anonymous, so I wasn’t able to check whether these particular youngsters were aware that the photo on the screen wasn’t necessarily the person sending the messages.

S2 had the highest proportion of medium and heavy users (50 per cent medium, 25 per cent heavy), and also (or perhaps so) a high number of users of both Bebo and MSN. Again, distance was emphasised in the comments: “It’s an easy way to talk to people who may live far away.” However five people also talked of friends nearby: “They’re fun and you can talk to your friends out of school whenever you want to.”

Twenty-one S3 pupils filled in the questionnaire. Only two used no sites, and almost half of the users were in the “light” category, including four of the six boys. The emphasis here seemed to be moving from talking to friends and family far away (only four mentions) to talking to people nearer at home.

Interestingly, girls emphasised the word talk in their reasons for using the sites: “you can talk to your friends”, “talk to people and to pass time”; “You can chat to friends and see what people’re up to”; “I like talking to friends and family”.

Now here are three male comments: “to go on and laugh at pictures, see what’s on and to see what the gossip is”; “I go on to check friends’ photos”; “Good for speaking to friends. Funny looking at pictures of people.”

With the 29 S4 pupils, Bebo was taking over, with 26 users, but Facebook and Myspace were also used by five people, and one also accessed Shetlink. The gender divide was very marked here; the boys weren’t very impressed by it, and looked only to see comments, and check pictures. In contrast, seven of the girls were keen users of two or more hours daily. However, just to show you can’t gender-generalise, especially on such small numbers, the two S4 pupils who didn’t use SNSs at all were both female.

On to the adults, and here the difference between age groups was very marked. My five 18 to 29 year-olds all used SNSs (Facebook, Bebo or Myspace), for keeping in touch with friends who live far away. Fourteen of the 15 people in the 30 to 45 age group, all well accustomed to doing quite complicated computer operations as part of their working lives, didn’t use them at all; the one who did used them to “contact old friends from college and keep in touch with them”. None of the ten adults in the 45 to 60 age group used them. It seemed very strictly a young people thing.

David Thomson suggested one reason why: the time it takes. “I posted my picture on Facebook. That was about nine months ago. I wanted to keep in touch with friends in Yell, but eventually I gave it up, it just took too much time. I reckoned I was better just picking up the phone.”

Since I did that research, four months ago, I’ve had at least five e-mails from people inviting me to be their friends on an SNS, all of that older age-group. Maybe it’s just that the sites begun with young people take time to filter through to us older ones.

The stereotype of a keen computer buff is of a lonely geek tapping away at a keyboard in his bedroom, but it’s certainly not like that up here. As David Thomson’s class have realised, today’s computer geek can be a mum or a granny getting photos from the other side of the world. Computers aren’t cutting us off from other people – we’re using them to get closer.


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