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Stopping the marginalised from falling through the net

SOCIOLOGISTS fear the current offering of Internet courses may be failing to target an important market and may inadvertently lead to an increase in the digital divide.

Most basic level Internet training (which often explains what the Internet is as much as how to use it) is targeted at the classically marginalised groups of society, such as migrants and the elderly.

But included among the digitally unenlightened are directors of company boards, company chairmen, Members of Parliament and influential policy-makers.

To leave these people out of the information loop may have far-reaching effects.

The typical industry heavy or parliamentarian came of age when the first personal computers rolled off the Commodore production line – before anyone had heard of Windows or Netscape. Asked to make decisions that shape the digital economy and society, many have little idea what the Internet’s potential (and potential dangers) may be.

A good indication of this was the presentation of the Internet Community Hour, a free introductory course on Internet basics given to several very senior policymakers from the Court Government. The presentation was facilitated by the West Australian Internet Association, which was wary of elected officials deciding public policy on digital matters without understanding them.

Born from the auspices of the WAIA (where its creator and director, Karen Melzack, sat on the board), Internet Community Hour is a program to introduce everyone from migrants to the elderly to the wonders and possibilities of the Internet.

A teacher by trade, Karen approaches groups from locations as widespread as Geraldton and Albany and trains instructors on delivering the one-hour lesson, which teaches people everything. “It’s an introduction to the Internet,” she says. “Everything from what a browser is to performing a simple search.”

ICH is a non-profit program put together several years ago and designed to position itself in communities of people who want (or need) to learn what the Internet is and what it can do. Originally funded by Central TAFE, benefactors have included several industry and education groups and providers and community-minded businesses and organisations.

“The first word I can think of is communication,” Karen says. “That’s absolutely crucial, whoever you are. Email alone is such an emotional support for isolated people. Everyone has to start somewhere and ICH is certainly the first step.

“It’s like a mentoring scheme. I go out to the communities and train the people who’ll be training the groups. I’ve been able to get out there and see what they want. And they want to teach themselves and each other.”

So where does that leave those not marginalised by language or means who want the very basics of Internet training? We live in a commercial world where web design and e-commerce are much sexier than the difference between the forward and back button on your browser.

Wendy Moore, an independent TAFE-qualified trainer and assessor, confirms that people with little or no skills come from a variety of backgrounds.

“Many of my clients are non-English speaking, have few English skills or are not computer literate,” she says. “They need to be given a lot of help to build confidence first.”

But, Ms Moore adds, people who know little about the Internet at least believe that an understanding of it would improve their lives.

“My typical student is about 45, female and is quite motivated to learn,” she says.

A big part of basic-level training is ascertaining skills that the bigger companies (and most of us in the professional sphere) take for granted – things such as how to use scroll-bars, where to click your pointer to type in a field, even how to start a browser up.

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