The Click and Connect program run here at NUI Galway reaches out to the digitally excluded to offer basic computer skills to those who need them. The program began last year in collaboration with Age Action Ireland, Limerick Community Connect, and DCU with funding from the Benefit 3 scheme and has been enormously successful. The course was continued this year with more than expected community support and participation in an effort to show that the Click and Connect program could be independently and sustainably run through the University. Pat Byrne, who is a lecturer here at NUIG and director of the Masters in Information Technology program (MIT), coordinated the flagship year but hopes to receive further funding so the program can continue with a full-time coordinator in order to accommodate the many learners who wish to participate. This year Dave English, a student in the MIT program and mentor in last year's Click and Connect, took over many of the organizational and promotional elements of the program in order to accommodate for the unexpectedly large community response. The second round of Click and Connect anticipated 40 learners, but with the help of the University press office and the publicity they were able to get started in the Galway community, 100 people signed up for the course and there are still nearly 100 names on the waiting list for next time. With such a large learner turn out, Dave had a lot of volunteers to recruit to help with the extra sessions that would have to be run. Working with Lorraine Tansey and the ALIVE office, calls went out to student volunteers, and social media and word of mouth were used to recruit the nearly 30 volunteers who would go on to be mentors in Click and Connect this year.
The program is meant to reach those who haven't had the chance to get used to computers and to do so in a very comfortable, non-threatening, and supportive environment. The Click and Connect sessions put learners and mentors together for three weeks with a 2:1 ratio so that there are always enough tutors available to answer questions and help with internet navigation. The courses cover the very basics of computer skills from turning on and off the computer, to getting used to the keyboard and typing skills, into basic internet skills like setting up and sending e-mails and surfing the web. The final session provides a review of the skills learners have already tackled and the opportunity to learn more about other online services that are available such as government resources, online banking, booking travel plans, and using Skype.
As university students, most of the mentors have grown up with computers, but the learners who come
in have not and they don't have the same comfort that their mentors do. The real aim of the program is to get rid of the fear that a lot of these learners have about computers. As Dave says its “just to break that initial barrier. Once they know they can break it they're not afraid to just go and play with it.” He says that over the three week course the fear that learners come in with dissipates enormously and they are confident and excited about the things they have learned. One of the most common skills learners come in wanting is the ability to use Skype. Many have family members that live in different parts of the world and being able to put them face to face with their loved ones is a gratifying reward for them in their learning and for their mentors. It shows tutors how important the skills they have really are. “They're passing something on,” Pat Byrne says, “and its something that they take very much for granted.” Learning to appreciate the skills they have and working with people who don't have these skills opens their eyes to the world out there and to their own privilege as university students. As she sees it, this is one of the main benefits of the program to student mentors who might not initially realize how capable they are, and it really opens up the possibility of future volunteering based other skills they may have taken for granted.
Volunteers go through a brief training session in which they are told about what's expected of them and reminded to be patient and enable learners, rather than to “do for” them. Another highlights of this program is that the student volunteers are highly skilled before they ever step into the mentor role. “They already have skills, they've set up e-mails and downloaded pictures,” says Dave. “They have the knowledge so we're just there to be support and make sure they know what they're doing: they're there to enable.” Students who want to earn an ALIVE certificate volunteer for two complete, three week Click and Connect courses, but Dave says that once they have done one or two classes, in a way they become addicted to it. They get attached to their pupils and are more disappointed when the course ends than the learners themselves. Having participated in one full course mentors have the opportunity to run sessions themselves in the future and lot of volunteers return to the program after their initial commitment. “The volunteers are really good. They want to be here,” Dave says of the student mentors he organized and supervised this semester. He sees their time in the classroom as a kind of stress relief. They see that they are able to really make a difference in people's lives and they don't want to let their learners down.
Pat Byrne and Dave English both want the Click and Connect program to continue reaching members of the Galway community who have shown a clear interest in it. And the university, by recruiting volunteers who return to lead the course and making it self-sustainable, has shown that they are able to continue providing free computer courses to those who need them. The next challenge then, is to ensure funding for a full-time coordinator and to keep expanding the program to cover increasing needs of the local community. Dave would like to run the course for longer so that learners have more time to get comfortable with their newly acquired skills, and to include units on more intricate services like twitter-so he can keep in touch with learners as their computer skills grow and improve- and internet security so that parents can be sure their children are safe while exploring the internet. The Click and Connect program has been a terrific success so far and we can only hope that it continues to be so in the coming years.