Before the pandemic, face-to-face activities were at the heart of our service and integral to the wellbeing of our service users. During the lockdown, MIN had to move most of our services online, and we needed to quickly understand more about how we can maintain these online groups as safe, creative and welcoming spaces for all our service users. We also wanted to ensure all our service users had equal access to online services, but a number of them need more skills and confidence to be able to use devices efficiently, safely and securely in order to join online groups and participate in activities.
There were many things we needed to consider when designing our approach. At the heart of all our planning was the needs of our service users, so we spent a good deal of time talking to them and finding out what they really needed, and how they could also play an important role in the process. We also needed to balance out the capacity of staff, time and funding available to develop our approach.In addition, we knew that digital exclusion was an issue for many of our service users who did not have regular and stable access to the internet or a suitable device. We were, however, fortunately connected into a few local and national initiatives which supported access to devices, wifi and/or data plans.
Despite having access to devices and data or wifi, many of our service users needed additional support in a few areas, for example, learning how to use the basics of their laptop and getting to know their laptop interface, troubleshooting the wifi connection from their Dongles, installing, setting up and learning how to use Zoom. Setting up email accounts and learning how to retrieve forgotten passwords, working with Office 365, transferring data and uploading files, feeling confident to access online groups, and inputting passwords.
In addition, there was a further problem over the impact on mental health for many of our service users who told us that “lockdown brings about low moods, loneliness and increased anxiety, decreasing motivation”.
One opportunity that we did notice however, was that there was a number of service users interviewed who felt very confident using devices and accessing online services. In order to bridge the gap between having devices yet not the knowledge/confidence to use them, we wanted to bring a more personal and human touch to the service we developed, which would help to resolve the problems we faced.
At MIN we have a great volunteering project which supports many of our service users to increase their confidence and skills through volunteer posts within the organisation. We saw that there would be an opportunity to develop new voluntary roles for engagement as digital “buddies” or digital “champions”. We were fortunate to be able to access a short training programme via Connecting Scotland for volunteers to get some information and support around the new role. We had 3 volunteers sign up to be part of this project, and in discussion with them, we decided to call them MIN’s DigiPals. Each week staff and volunteers connected into our new
DigiPals project meet to discuss areas of need, solutions and ideas around how to add value to the service.
In February MIN was awarded a consignment of 40 laptops and data packages from Connecting Scotland. This award was aimed at families and so we were able to support just under 50% of the families we work with to access a device and be connected to the internet. This posed a great opportunity for our DigiPals to engage with their new skills and learning. We set up a portal which enabled people to reach out to us if they needed help from a DigiPal, and we were able to link them up to one of the volunteers who spoke the same language. We kept a record of all the support which took place, the nature of the requests and also, any follow up needs. We undertook a survey of all the families supported and the feedback was extremely positive.
The DigiPal volunteers said about the project:
“I’m feeling that I’m doing something good, in addition - from my own experience - I know how important it is to get help or support. I would encourage more people to join this project to offer more support to the community.”
“I want to help other asylum seekers and refugees to understand how to use the internet, in order for them to have access to important information. This will help me to give back to society as I have experience on how to use digital devices.”
Service users receiving the devices also stated:
“As an asylum seeker, it is beautiful. The internet is so helpful, the children can use it to learn and speak to friends. It was so hard when we couldn’t see anyone. It also helps to have the internet long-term, so we don’t need to keep topping up data, we can buy food instead.”
“I use the device to attend child therapy appointments online, it was the first time in a few months and it made a big difference to me and my son.”
“It made my study very easy, and my daughters, it has also given me more confidence in technology.”
Recently, we have worked on a new logo for the project and we continue to access training courses, as well as developing our own guides, for example, ‘How To Use Zoom to its Full Extent’. The DigiPals have been discussing creating short video tutorials, to accompany these guides. We want to be able to continue supporting our service users to make the best use of being online, and also to reach out to other organisations and people across Glasgow who could benefit from support through the DigiPals project at MIN.