Surfing with the digital natives

27th January 2012 at 00:00
A group of Year 8 girls is teaching 'senior students' how to navigate the internet and proving that, when it comes to going online, being an octogenarian is no obstacle. Adi Bloom reports

"Any children?" Jaymee Saner-Dickens asks, looking at the drop-down menu on the brightly coloured website.

"No, definitely no children," Violet Shevill says.

Jaymee presses "search" and a message appears on screen: Mrs Shevill might want to upgrade to premium economy class for "just #163;161".

"Just #163;161!" Mrs Shevill says, taking the recommendation slightly more personally than it was perhaps intended. "As if you'd bother flying economy if you had an extra #163;161 to spend just like that."

"Yeah," says Jaymee, and clicks again on the screen.

Twelve-year-old Jaymee is in Year 8 at Avonbourne School. She is one of a group of pupils at the Bournemouth girls' school who offers weekly lessons in basic internet use - email, online shopping, internet banking - to local pensioners.

The scheme came about because of a boring lesson. Kathryn Loughnan, Avonbourne's director of enterprise and unique ethos, was attempting to teach her Year 8 pupils about databases. "It's probably one of the driest subjects you can imagine," Loughnan says. "So I tried to engage them."

She handed out copies of the Yellow Pages and asked pupils to find various telephone numbers. Most had not used Yellow Pages before and looking up a number took them the best part of 10 minutes. Then Loughnan asked them to look up the same numbers online. "I gave them a computer and - bam, bam - they were on and it was done immediately."

So she began telling them about her 84-year-old mother, who had never used a computer: "There's quite a broad section of our society who don't even know the basics." At the end of the lesson, a group of pupils approached her with a suggestion - they could offer internet lessons to older people, such as Loughnan's mother, who might want to go online, but have no idea where to start.

And so, every Tuesday afternoon, a group of "senior students" - "'Silver surfers' is patronising and just 'students' would be confusing," says Loughnan - turns up at school for internet lessons with Avonbourne pupils. This afternoon, the topic is online shopping. And so Jaymee is showing Mrs Shevill how to purchase flights on the Flybe website. The pair are attempting to book a flight from Southampton to Dublin.

"How did it come up with #163;71 for a flight?" asks Mrs Shevill, staring in bemusement at the screen. "That doesn't seem right, does it?" Next to her, Jaymee chews on her bottom lip. "I don't know," she says.

"In the paper, there was an advert saying that a flight was #163;39 if you book before the 18th," says Mrs Shevill. "So how does it come up with #163;71?"

"I don't know," Jaymee repeats.

Mrs Shevill owns a computer at home, although she rarely uses it. "It takes up so much time because I don't know what I'm doing," the 70-year-old says.

"I read a lot of newspapers, so I know there's a lot you can do. But I can't do it myself. It annoys me when there's a television programme you're watching, and if you want more information, you have to go on the internet. Well, that's wonderful, if you're in the habit of going on the internet. But if you're not, it's very annoying." She pauses. "That's an old person's moan."

Initially, Loughnan advertised the sessions in the local newspaper. And large banners, visible both to Avonbourne pupils and those from the neighbouring boys' school, promote the course to passers-by. But, in fact, most participants hear about it through word-of-mouth recommendation.

Resisting the 'pushy' parent

More than 100 senior students have so far attended the sessions, most for a period of six to eight weeks. "We already had a lot of parents coming into school for various events and a lot of younger children," says Loughnan. "But Bournemouth has quite an aged population - it's a retirement community. So we thought it would be nice to get that section of the community in, too."

Many participants have already attended computing courses elsewhere. But the pace of lecture-style sessions is often ill-suited to older learners. "You go to these classes, and then you go home and you do forget," says Mrs Shevill. "You forget as you get older. You don't retain the information as easily."

Because of this, the Avonbourne sessions are conducted on a one-to-one basis and run at the senior students' own pace. "Some people are genuinely frightened because they don't understand it," says Loughnan. "Some people need to understand it before they use it. And some people just throw themselves into the technology, immerse themselves in it."

One octogenarian signed up in order to learn how to send emails with attachments. He was chair of the local Rotary club and he thought it might be useful to be able to contact all members with a single email. Within a few weeks, he was holding Skype conversations with his son in Thailand and booking tickets for the opera online.

He had recently moved to a smaller house and had a garage full of belongings that he no longer needed. So, having learned about eBay at the Avonbourne classes, he sold them all online.

Now, opposite Mrs Shevill and Jaymee, 13-year-old Ella Drummond is attempting to explain Facebook and Twitter to Fred Parsons. "So, in Facebook, you have statuses, but in Twitter you just tweet," she says. "There's lots of people's accounts, and you make your account name."

"And what's the difference between the two?" 84-year-old Mr Parsons asks.

"Umm, it's quite complicated," says Ella. "It's like talking to your friends. I would show you, but it's blocked on school computers."

"Can we just go back to Google?" Mr Parsons says.

"There's a lot of jargon associated with it," Loughnan admits. "Something will become a word that everyone online knows before Fred even has the chance to look it up in the dictionary."

Different people pick things up at different rates. And some come in purely to learn how to do one specific thing. "I think my son showed me how to do emails," says Mr Parsons. "I don't bother much. Why would you, when there's the telephone?

"But when I'm going somewhere, I want to be able to look it up online, so I know where I'm going. My grandson's getting married in July and I wanted to see what the place was like. I'm just naturally curious."

Another senior student was almost housebound, looking after her sick husband. The internet allowed her to leave the house virtually, to do her shopping more easily and to watch TV at times that suited her better. "I'm not going to say it transformed their lives because that's silly," says Loughnan. "But it really has impacted on them."

Most of the pupil-tutors cannot remember a time before the internet. "When did I first go on a computer?" asks Jaymee. "The first time I started school, probably. I don't remember."

"We didn't have computers when I started school," counters Mrs Shevill. "Well, even when I left school, we didn't have computers."

"I remember when I was little, we didn't use computers as much," Ella offers. "So it's nice to learn about what they had in their life. It's not a completely different culture - I could imagine a world without technology. But I think it would be difficult to cope."

Nonetheless, the pupils are being asked to venture outside their own virtual comfort zones. "How do I find the cheapest fare?" Mrs Shevill says of the Flybe site. "It doesn't matter which day of the week I go, or when I come back, as long as it's cheap."

At 12 years old, Jaymee is not in the habit of booking flights - even budget ones - on a regular basis. She bites her bottom lip again. "I've never been on this website before," she says. "But, well, um, sometimes these things are a pain."

The sessions, Loughnan believes, can provide a valuable lesson for the pupil-teachers as well as the senior students. "They can see that there's actually a whole raft of opportunities that exist in the computing world," she says. "It's not just games and software development." This is particularly valuable in a girls' school, where IT jobs tend to be perceived as a largely male preserve.

And the fact that the pupils are able to teach something to people seven times their age encourages them to have confidence in their own skills and abilities. "There are things the senior students didn't even realise existed," says Loughnan. "If you're evolving with technology, you see it progress. But if it's just presented to you, it's like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I think that's why the girls get such a thrill out of doing it. It's almost like performing a magic trick each week."

Resources for schools looking to set up a similar scheme are available here: bit.lywTsBXh or here: bit.lyp4qTsq or on the Go ON Digital Champions resource area of the TES website.

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