The web may still be a relatively young invention, but it’s quickly become an integral part of our lives. We’re dependent on it. We use it from our PCs, our laptops, our tablets, our phones. The days when finding information meant a trek to the library and hours looking for the right book rather than ten minutes on Wikipedia are a distant memory. Phone books are as likely to be used to prop open a door or steady a wobbly table leg as to look up a phone number in the Google age. Yet there are still a large proportion of people without access to this mainstay of post-millennium life: the over-60s.
I often ask older people I meet if they have a web-enabled computer, particularly if they have mentioned a problem such as difficulty getting out to the shops. I am usually given one of the following answers:
- “Oh, computers are all very well for your generation, you learnt about them at school. It’s too late for me to learn”
- “There’s no point learning a new skill at my age. Computers are for businesses and I’m retired”
- “I don’t know how to type/use a mouse”
- “I’ve got no interest in the Internet. I don’t see what it has to offer me”
- “Everything’s about email and Twitter and Facebook these days. Most of my friends don’t use the Internet so I’d have no one to communicate with”
- “I’m afraid of getting a virus and breaking my computer”
- “I’m worried about someone finding out my personal details online and stealing my identity”
- “The Internet is too expensive. What with paying for the Internet connection, anti-virus software and all the other software I’d need, it’s more than I can afford”
- “I have a disability which makes it hard for me to use a computer”
Let’s face it, for someone with little or no experience of the web, cyberspace can be a pretty scary place. If you followed the news without ever going online, you might well get the impression that Internet users are dogged constantly by viruses, phishing scams and identity theft. With many television shows and other media sources promoting their Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, you might feel the web has nothing more to offer than social networking. And ads for new computers will certainly suggest that you need to buy all the software programs under the sun to keep this new bit of kit working smoothly. Many times I’ve tried (and succeeded) to shatter some of these myths and encourage people online by pointing out just some of the things they can do:
- Send “letters” instantly and for free, all around the world
- Join communities and find out information about hobbies they are interested in, such as crafting and gardening
- Find the answer to just about any question, instantly
- Buy groceries and have them delivered
- Buy consumer goods and gifts, often at less than high-street prices
- Get in touch with old friends
- Trace their family tree
- Find out about public services such as pension entitlement
- Apply for a passport or driving licence
- Make free phone calls all around the world using Skype
- Compare prices on insurance, utility bills etc
It seems that many older people are being discouraged from joining the Internet revolution not through lack of interest but through fear and misconceptions. Even those who do decide to take the leap can be intimidated by the language of this completely new world. What is a search engine? How do you double click? Why does the mouse pointer change shape when moved to different parts of the screen? I think we often forget quite how scary the sight of a first web page can be, especially if we have been web users so long that navigation has become second nature.
My grandad held several of these misconceptions for many years before he finally gave in and decided to give the web a go. I was able to buy him a second-hand computer for just £60 and set it up at no additional cost with all the software for what he wanted to do: that is, word processing, email and surfing the web. He now has his own blog, is a member of Twitter and Facebook and has tracked down several old army buddies – for him there’s no looking back! Spurred on by this success, I volunteered to teach a class at my local community centre to help other older people get started online, and I have discovered several useful resources. If you have a friend or family member you would like to get set up with a web-enabled computer, here are a few of the best:
1. Go ON
This is the online course used in most of the computer classes run by local authorities around the country: however, it can also be done for free at home. Users sign up for a free account. The course will then take them through the basics of using a computer and mouse and on to modules about using email, staying safe online, using search engines and finding out about public services. When they have completed all these modules, users can print out a certificate to say they have completed the course. There are also other modules they can try if they want to take their learning even further.
The course uses a combination of text, images, videos and interactive activities to guide users through the different modules. It is a very good, thorough course. The main problem users in my class had with it was that it is not always clear when something is a static image or when it is interactive – some were confused when trying to interact with what turned out to be an image, not an exercise. That’s why it can be useful to join a class rather than doing it at home, as there is always a teacher on hand to help users through any problems.
This free software was invaluable when setting up my grandad’s computer, and I have used the multi-user version again since then with my class. At first I set grandad up with Thunderbird for emails. However, he didn’t find Thunderbird all that intuitive, often typing whole emails in the subject line and failing to work out where the email address ought to go. When I set up the Eldy software for him, he was able to send emails within minutes. The main advantages of this software are:
- It’s free
- It’s simple to use and navigate, with large easy-to-read buttons
- Emails are sent via an intuitive step-by-step process designed to resemble the act of sending a physical letter, even to the extent that the screen for addressing the email is styled to look like an envelope
- The built-in web browser is simple, with large buttons, and includes a very useful feature: a magnifying glass icon which, when dragged left or right, will instantly reduce or increase the size of the text on a web page
However, there is one flaw. The company which produces the software is Italian, and some of the translations into English can be a bit confusing. The button labelled “Read emails”, for example: does this mean “read” in the future tense (“I will read my emails”) or the past tense (“These emails have been read”)? In this case it is the former, but you see the problem. However, it is possible to customise the software to a great extent by making edits inside the language file. If you email me, I can instruct you on how to do this and even send the edited language file I use, which I think solves most of the issues.
The extra features of the software, such as chat and video, don’t add much, although there is quite a useful little slimmed-down word processor some users might appreciate. However, its main value is as a web and email client.
3. Linux distros
Of course, most new, and many second-hand, computers come with a copy of Windows. However, there are a lot of good, easy-to-use Linux distros which you might consider as an alternative, particularly if you are already familiar with Linux installations. For those who don’t know, Linux is a free, open-source operating system which comes in a number of different “flavours”, or distros. I have now used Linux EasyPeasy for two older computer users and found it to be a very straightforward OS with a simple, easy-to-navigate icon-based interface (see screencap below). For my grandad, this is really only a shell for the Eldy software. I have set this to auto-start so he is online within minutes of starting his machine.
Another advantage of running Linux over Windows is that you can be reassured your friend/relative is unlikely to fall prey to viruses when surfing the web.
Some other easy-to-use Linux distros to consider:
Cost is one reason some older people are afraid to get started online. One lady told me that once she had purchased a new laptop to replace her old Windows 95 machine, invested in a router and a broadband subscription, and on top of that added the cost of Microsoft Office, Outlook, an anti-virus program and a firewall, she would be broke! I explained that there were many free alternatives to the software she had named, and demonstrated a few to her on my own laptop – she was shocked that there was so much available and yet so few people were aware of them.
I use OpenOffice for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations etc, Mozilla Thunderbird as my email client and Avira anti-virus software. Other freeware is available, however, such as LibreOffice and Abiword.
5. Laptop vs desktop
Several times I have been asked whether a new computer user would be better buying a desktop PC or a laptop. For what my opinion’s worth (a couple of peanuts and half a Twix), I would say that unless the user has particular issues to address – such as a lack of space at home or a need for portable computing – a desktop is usually best. Desktops are cheaper to buy; they’re less expensive to fix if they develop a hardware problem; they’re easier to upgrade, and they are simpler to use, having a larger screen, full keyboard and proper mouse (rather than a trackpad – although one user did tell me she found the trackpad easier to use than a regular mouse). Another option is a tablet PC. Some find these more intuitive as they can interact directly with the information on the touchscreen, cutting out the “middle man” of the mouse. One lady in my class came specifically to find out how to use her iPad and has fallen completely in love with it!
Of course there is no single answer: it depends on an individual’s needs. Always consider the following:
- Space: does this user have enough room for a desktop, chair and desk?
- Mobility: does the user want to take his or her computer away from home to use, for example to a cafe with an internet connection if they don’t have one at home? Are they comfortable sitting at a desk?
- Usage: what will the user primarily use the computer for? Do they need it to be very fast/powerful?
- Budget: how much do they want to spend?
- Breakages: are they prepared for higher repair costs if they buy a laptop and a part needs replacing in future?
6. Helping disabled users
Sometimes, an older user may have a disability which will cause problems for them when trying to use a computer. Someone who has poor eyesight, for example, will struggle to read small text and may need help enlarging this in their browser (the Eldy software makes this very easy by having a slider to increase or reduce text size under the address bar at all times). If their eyesight is very bad they may need to use screen reader software for web browsing, such as Thunder.
One lady I know suffers from arthritis and found it difficult to manoeuvre a mouse. I was able to find out from the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society website that trackballs such as this one can be helpful for web users with arthritis, and this has been a big help. If you are unsure how to help a disabled web user address their challenges, a disability charity’s website is often a good place to start.
7. Local classes
Sometimes, the one-to-one approach is really the best way to get started online. If family members are too busy to spend much time helping an older relative get to grips with the web, a computer class could be the solution. Most local areas now run classes on using computers and the web for older people, often at a very low cost. Many of these use the Go ON resource.
You can search for a class near you from the UK Online Centres website. If you can’t find a class in your area, speak to your local library or community centre and ask if they have any plans to set one up. Or if you have the time, become a Digital Champion and start one yourself!
8. Reading material
It can be useful to provide instructions and exercises for people to work through at their own speed as they learn to use the web (especially if you run a class where members have different levels of experience). I have looked around for useful resources to download, but in the absence of anything providing just what I wanted I mostly ended up creating my own. I have produced some illustrated guides to the Eldy software which I use with my class, glossaries of internet jargon, guides to using popular websites such as Google, and worksheets which aim to help users learn about what the web has to offer (typically, I will set exercises such as “Use Google to find out the best time to plant tomatoes”, “Use the Directgov website to find out how you can apply for a passport online” or “Use Google to find out about hobbies you are interested in”, which will hopefully lead on to further exploration). These resources were created specifically for the class I run but I am happy to share them with anyone starting a similar project: just drop me an email!
8. Other resources
Ok, the best of the rest:
- BBC Webwise: the BBC also runs free courses to help users get online. These are video-based so headphones/speakers will be needed.
- Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Using a Computer: this is an old BBC Webwise course, but it’s still online and still useful. It talks new users through the basics of their computer setup and how to use a keyboard and mouse, with interactive exercises to try as they go. It even covers correct posture!
- Browsers, Addresses and Buttons: Some other old but useful Webwise links, these run through the functions of a browser; website URLs and what they mean, and how to use links on web pages. These give quite a thorough background in what the Internet is, if you like, and cut through a lot of the jargon new users will find difficult.
- New Web User Tutorial: Again, an oldie but a goodie: this goes through the use of a mouse and keyboard, plus common website elements such as links, icons and forms, and includes interactive activities. Can be a bit buggy, particularly in Internet Explorer.
Are you aware of any great resources for helping newbies get started online? Please share below.