2020 was a year of rapid change for all of us and it highlighted more than ever the need for everyone to have digital skills, as well as the urgency of the push to close the digital divide.

In July 2019, WHALE Arts were happy to receive funding from the Digital Participation Charter Fund to support our Wester Hailes Digital Skills Development programme. This allowed us to run weekly digital skills drop-in workshops for local people in the Wester Hailes area of Edinburgh. We hit the ground running, and with local partners such as Clovenstone Community Centre we were quickly delivering our in-person sessions using our tried and tested one to one support model, building a rapport with participants and identifying the topics they had an interest in before – gradually, over time – using these topics as the hook to help them improve their digital skills.

Then the pandemic hit. Our drop-in sessions halted immediately, and the team pivoted to offer distanced support. Aware that some of our participants had always joined our sessions for the social aspects and to stave off isolation, we launched weekly friendship calls and offered community meal takeaway and deliveries, whilst our artists and tutors provided do at home art packs and activities. It was during these friendship calls that it became clear that lockdown was having a severe impact on participants who had previously never felt the need to be ‘digital’. We also became acutely aware of the number of families who were unable to adequately engage with home-schooling due to a lack of equipment or knowledge. Many were reporting a feeling of being completely disconnected.

Fortunately, with the support ofConnecting Scotland and other Scottish Government supported schemes, we were able to secure a series of tablets with mobile internet to distribute to our most isolated and vulnerable participants. Our Digital team then started running IT support calls to these participants, and others who needed digital support, to help them set up the devices and develop the skills needed to use them.

A lot of patience was needed for these calls, and a sensitive approach was required to work through the difficulties that arose when trying to remotely explain apps like Zoom to someone who had never even been on the internet before. Learning not to use potentially confusing terms like ‘address bar’, ‘apps’ or ‘icons’ – which were useless to many without context – and trying to put into easily accessible language the instructions which previously we would have demonstrated face to face, was at times very challenging.

However, seeing the success of increasing people’s digital skills and confidence – when online was the only option for contact with friends or family – and the happiness they felt when they were able to connect to a Zoom meeting by themselves was, and continues to be, incredibly rewarding.

It has been great to see the people we have supported being able to now engage digitally with other local services, from Zoom support groups to online art classes. The sense of freedom the devices give, and the impact of the wraparound digital skills support provided, has been clear to see.

It’s now a full year since we went into lockdown, and we are to delighted to have been able to release our third round of devices recently, this time to vulnerable local families. We are eagerly looking forward to helping them on their digital journeys and to hopefully meeting some of our newer digital participants in person for the first time.