Lessons from Family Fund’s Digital Skills Programme
Family Fund is the UK’s largest charity providing grants to families on lower incomes raising disabled or seriously ill children. One of the most-awarded grant items is computers or tablets, with over 12,000 provided last year. Feedback from families indicated that many lacked what would be considered by many people as quite basic digital skills. So in 2015 Family Fund set up a digital skills programme to help these families get the most out of the tablets they were receiving.
Although a great deal of planning went into launching the scheme, there were still surprises encountered along the way. But each unexpected situation also brought with it valuable lessons, five of which are outlined here.
- Start small, refine and adjust
We began the programme with a small pilot project focusing on two areas of the UK before rolling the programme out nationally. By doing this, we were able to identify key issues and problems with the model before expanding it more widely. This does not mean that the up-scaled project was problem-free, but we had at least prepared ourselves for some of the challenges we knew we would encounter in the early stages. To ensure we continue to track problems and opportunities for improvement, we have a process for regular debriefing and reviewing feedback from both families and trainers, ensuring we continually shape the programme to best meet the needs of families.
- Accept that not everyone fits a standard mould
We soon learnt that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach rarely works when it comes to helping people use technology, particularly for the families we support. Some of the parents/carers have never used a computer before (and wouldn’t choose to get a tablet if it wasn’t for the fact their child was using one in school), whereas others are generally competent in using IT but less confident about particular skills such as setting up parental controls on their tablet. When we also consider the needs of children with a wide range of conditions, including autism, learning disabilities, sensory impairments and complex physical disabilities, it is clear that each family will have a unique digital need. We realised early on that our training programme had to be similarly bespoke to each family and offer one-to-one training where possible.
3. Recognise limitations and don’t try to do everything
Initially, we had intended for our programme to help people use many types of digital devices and support them with other aspects of the digital world, including online safety. However, we needed to balance the quality of training delivered against the quantity of families reached, and so decided to focus on training people to use tablets, which have particularly strong potential for supporting learning and development for children with additional needs.
Although we had these self-imposed restrictions, we still wanted to provide some form of support for those who wanted help with other types of devices, and so we developed some supporting resources and signposting routes. We also approached external partners to help us meet this need. Increasingly, global technology companies are developing their own digital support programmes and many organisations, especially in the charitable sector, provide information and support to help families use digital technology safety. We now refer people to these organisations where Family Fund is unable to offer direct help. Most recently, we’ve joined forces with AbilityNet, which supports disabled people to use technology in their own homes through a national network of volunteers. Our partnership with AbilityNet allows Family Fund to offer one-to-one training on digital devices other than just tablets.
4. Don’t expect people to do what you’d expect!
Although you know how much effort, time and cost goes into your programme, the people you support are likely to have other priorities. Many families raising disabled children, for example, have particularly challenging lives as a result of the health and care needs of their child. Short-notice cancellations are not unusual, and we sometimes have to turn back trainers en route to the person’s house. Processes such as confirmation letters and SMS reminders have helped reduce cancellations, but there will always be times when people have to cancel their training at short notice and this needs to be allowed for. Similarly, while the majority of families who receive training through Family Fund’s programme find it valuable and useful in their day-to-day lives, some families still struggle (even after multiple training sessions). We offer further assistance on a case-by-case basis, although sometimes it is more helpful to the family if we recognise that we might not be the best organisation to support them and instead look for a referral option (see above).
5. Evaluate without overkill
Evaluation is crucial in order to both measure success and refine your project in response to user need. In the initial stages, Family Fund was required to include evaluation questions set out by our funder, not all of which aligned with our own organisational objectives. The result was a very cumbersome evaluation process involving lengthy questionnaires. These incorporated questions required by the funder that proved quite difficult for some of our families to respond to. As a consequence, many families disengaged, reducing both the number and quality of submitted surveys. Fortunately, through discussion with our funding partners, we were able to adapt our evaluation making it more concise and relevant. The return rate has increased and we can respond to individual feedback more effectively, making changes to the programme as necessary.
Although we’ve learnt a lot since 2015, surprises keep coming and we can never stand still. Feedback from the families, developments in technology, new funding opportunities and new digital initiatives (from video hacks through to face-to-face support from global technology organisations), all keep us on our toes. What’s crucial is that Family Fund’s digital skills programme continues to evolve with the ever-changing environment. If we can continue to do this, we can keep helping families raising disabled children to use digital devices in the ways that support their families’ needs.
The stories of families who have taken part in Family Fund’s Digital Skills Programme are available to read here and a full summary of the programme’s outcomes are detailed in the report, Building Digital Confidence. For more information on the programme and how to get involved, visit www.familyfund.org.uk/digital.
One Digital is a UK wide partnership which promotes the use of Digital Champions to support people to learn digital skills. For organisations interested in setting up their own digital inclusion project we have developed a free Toolkit, containing a range of useful information and resources.