Bringing digital skills to the young, the old and the marginalised

26 May 2016

Mary Nally, founder, Third Age. Photo by Fiona Koch

From young coders to former prisoners, Ashoka Ireland’s Fiona Koch highlights three social organisations that are empowering millions through technology.

Niamh Scanlon and David Puttnam may be separated by over 60 years in age, but they share an important mission. Both advocate for the benefits of digital technologies in improving society, helping disconnected or underrepresented groups of people to gain better access to technology.

Scanlon, 13, was named EU Digital Girl of the Year in 2015, while Puttnam, who turned 75 this February, has served as Ireland’s Digital Champion since 2012, and both play key roles in promoting the use of technology as a means for self-empowerment.

“Reaching out to the elderly, the disconnected among them, is a big part of the job,” Puttnam said of his work as he addressed the Silicon Republic Digital Ireland Forum in 2014. This was never more evident than on a sunny day this May, when he attended a computer skills workshop in the headquarters of Third Age, a national voluntary organisation seeking to elevate the value of elderly retirees in their communities, while filming an episode for his RTÉ documentary series on digital trends in Ireland.

Third Age

Getting started at the Third Age computer class. Photo by Fiona Koch

Founder Mary Nally, introduced computer literacy classes to Third Age over 15 years ago, in order to transform the lives of the isolated elderly living in her rural hometown of Summerhill, Co. Meath. Now in her sixties herself, Nally wanted to share the feeling of empowerment that she gained when she learned how to use a computer and access the internet.

“Everything is digitalised today – from banking to shopping and more. Why should [the elderly] be left behind? At Third Age, we want to take the fear out of computing,” she explained during Puttnam’s visit.

“I know some older people have embraced technology, and others are afraid. I want to encourage everyone to say, ‘Maybe I will.’”

Mary Nally, Third Age

Ireland’s Digital Champion David Puttnam (left) with Third Age founder Mary Nally and broadcaster Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. Photo by Fiona Koch

Joining Puttnam for the workshop was the well-known Irish Gaelic games commentator Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, who extolled the virtues of Skype for allowing him to “put the kettle on and share a cup of tea” via video call with his four children living abroad.

Puttnam, who is a passionate champion of digital technologies in education, explained how video-conferencing technology has enabled him to teach film students in six universities around the world from the comfort of his garage, calling it “a rejuvenating experience.”

Puttnam was keen to emphasise the importance of promoting digital skills in all ages. At 75, he says, “I’m working as hard as I’ve ever worked in my life, and if all goes well, I’ll have another ten years to look forward to. For young people growing up today, they could be working until they are 100! We are living in a world where change is a constant.”

‘Everything is digitalised today – from banking to shopping and more. Why should the elderly be left behind?’

Young changemakers

Much has been written about the importance of preparing young students for a future dominated by technology. CoderDojo, the open-source social enterprise founded by social entrepreneur James Whelton in Cork, in 2011, remains the largest and fastest growing network of free coding clubs for kids, with 1,000 verified dojos in 63 countries.

Teaching children computer skills at an early age can help prepare them for an increasingly competitive job market, but it also empowers them to give back to their communities in a positive way, with many CoderDojo students designing programmes and apps that have a wide-reaching impact.

Student Conor Begley, 18, joined his local CoderDojo club in Dundalk when his hurling team fell apart. Seeking activities to fill his weekends, he began coding and developed an award-winning app, Quick Com; a design inspired by his severely disabled and wheelchair-bound aunt Fiona.

Using his aunt’s minor eye and forehead movements as a means of binary input, Begley built a communication aid that allows her to express full sentences and phrases through the app. The app won him a Coolest Project Award at CoderDojo’s annual conference and resulted in a product that benefits not only his aunt, but has the potential to impact the lives of many more cerebral palsy patients like her.

Conor Begley, Coolest Projects

Conor Begley at the CoderDojo Coolest Projects Awards with Dublin City University president Prof Brian MacCraith. Photo via CoderDojo

It was at a CoderDojo in Dublin that Niamh Scanlon learned to code. Starting when she was just nine years old, she quickly channeled her skills into tangible projects.

Motivated by her parents’ difficulty in finding charger stations for their electronic car, she built a mobile app, reCharge My eCar, to map all the public charging points for battery-charged cars in Ireland.

Scanlon’s appointment as Digital Girl of the Year means that she has been recognised for “demonstrating, promoting or actually increasing” digital skills and participation among girls and women, as well as her use of digital know-how for the benefit of society. “There should be as many girls as boys working in and with technology and I would like to see more girls my age start coding and getting into tech,” she says.

Prison reform

The elderly audience of Third Age and CoderDojo’s army of young coders have benefited from technology, and both examples make a strong case for the potential for innovation in education. Social entrepreneur Mike Feerick has been pioneering the use of technology in education since 2007, when he founded ALISON, a platform that is credited as the world’s first-ever massive open online course (MOOC).

Unlike other well-known MOOCs such as Udacity and Coursera, ALISON’s content is not drawn from elite academic institutions but instead focuses on practical workplace skills and vocational certifications, which are popular among populations with little access to formal education. As a result, the majority of ALISON’s over 7m registered learners are in developing countries.

Mike Feerick, Ashoka Fellow

Mike Feerick, pictured in ALISON’s native Galway. Photo by Reg Gordon (via ALISON)

“With ALISON, we are making education more accessible, but some marginalised groups have greater challenges than others,” Feerick explained of his vision for the platform in an interview with Forbes last year.

A demographic that is often neglected by society is the prison population, as well as those re-entering society after serving out their prison sentences. According to Feerick, formerly incarcerated people have some of the greatest educational need in society.

Studies suggest that 92pc of those being released from United Kingdom prisons feel unprepared for the world outside. The situation is even more acute in the United States, which houses 22pc of the world’s total prison population.

“If you have a felony conviction it is extremely difficult to get a job. So we say: ‘Educate yourself and become more employable.’ There are employers who want to give these people a break, but they want to see them going some of the distance themselves and showing an interest in updating their skills,” said Feerick.

Third Age computer class

Computer class in full swing at Third Age. Photo by Fiona Koch

To address the massive educational need, last year ALISON began offering the Advanced Diploma in Workforce Re-Entry, a course aimed at helping former prison inmates prepare for life in a professional environment. The company teamed up with the US Department of Education and correctional services to provide basic training, and is expanding in other states.

Because many prisoners have little access to technology and computers while in prison, the course includes tips for acquiring soft skills such as focus and self-discipline. Incorporating basic IT skills is also crucial, as many prisoners have little if any access to technology while serving time.

“One of [our IT courses] has been taken by over 1m ALISON early learners worldwide – people like the elderly who have been marginalised technologically and are starting at the basics,” Feerick said of the course’s popularity.

‘We are making education more accessible, but some marginalised groups have greater challenges than others’

The power of learning

The ultimate end-goal, according to Feerick? To build confidence in as many people as possible and to empower them to keep learning.

“In a survey of our graduates, 88pc of the people who had certified with ALISON said that learning online with us had improved their confidence,” he explained in his Forbes interview.

Because ALISON’s courses tend to be shorter than average MOOC platform offerings, they see high graduation rates and, crucially, returning customers. A remarkable 90pc of ALISON graduates reported that completing a course had encouraged them to keep learning.

“That’s something everybody wants: for people to be more confidence in their life, to be more assured of what they know and who they are, and to be interested in learning further. The trick to learning success is to get people learning at all,” said Feerick.

Feerick’s words echo those of his peer social innovators and tech ambassadors. In an ever-changing and increasingly digitised world, we all have a role to play in helping those on the fringes join the conversation.

Whether one calls it confidence or empowerment, the positive impact of changemaking technology is clear: teach one young coder, retiree or former prisoner how to access new skills, and the possibilities for social good can be endless.

By Fiona Koch

Fiona Koch is communications manager for Ashoka Ireland, help Ashoka fellows to refine and amplify their stories for both local and global audiences. She writes about trends and innovations in the social sector.

Mary Nally, James Whelton and Mike Feerick are members of the Ashoka Fellowship, the world’s largest network of leading social entrepreneurs. Ashoka Fellows Jamila Abass and Alex Bernadotte will be speaking in Dublin this summer at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event for passionate sci-tech professionals, running from 30 June to 2 July 2016. Book your tickets now for access to fresh perspectives on science, technology, leadership and innovation.