Pairing tech savvy schoolkids with older people struggling with new technology has proved a perfect match in the Victorian town of Traralgon.
The idea of a service to help older peoplein the community with their digital devices staffed by local high school students seemed logical to Joh Lyons, project worker for the Digital Shed, a project of Traralgon Neighbourhood Learning House.
As a former secondary school teacher, Joh knew that many local high schools offered Community Service one day a week. She also knew that what seemed simple to high school kids – using email, setting up apps, shopping online – could be more challenging for older members of the community.
Established in 2013, the Digital Shed offers a drop in service where high school students help community members with easy-to-understand technical information and advice.
Advantages for young and old
The service benefits both teachers and learners, Joh says. ‘It’s a reciprocal relationship. The older people often tell stories to the kids and they tend to give lots of positive feedback, which the kids just love. They often bring cakes and things along because they are just so grateful.’
‘For the kids and particularly those who are quiet or introverted, it’s a great social activity – they become experts and it really brings them out of their shells.’ Parents notice the change too. ‘They say they notice their kids are more confident and happy and talk about the people they’ve met. A couple who were pretty disengaged at school have taken on more of a leadership role as a result of their work here.’
All tutors are trained for their role. ‘They learn how to deal with people who are courageous enough to ask for assistance – they learn that older people can feel silly asking for help so it’s important to bear that in mind, to be polite and considerate.’
But it’s rare that Joh has to take a student aside and have a word about dealing sensitively with customers. ‘The kids are spectacular,’ she says.‘I also tell them that it’s OK to not know and ask someone else. So they learn from each other and become real problem solvers.’ But it’s important for them to know their limits. ‘Young people tend to experiment a lot when they are learning but it’s best if they don’t experiment on other peoples’ devices. If they don’t know the answer it’s best to refer people to a computer shop.’
Teacher Will Snell, aged 15
Will Snell was 13 when he started working at the Traralgon Digital Shed two years ago.
He took on the job as part of a Community Service subject at his school, Lavalla Catholic College. In that time he reckons he’s taught over 100 customers how to use their digital devices more confidently.
With his flair for ICT, Will was a good candidate for the tutoring job but once he started he found that people skills were just as important.
‘I’d never done anything like it before, it was completely new to me and I needed help with interacting with customers. I watched what the other helpers were doing and I learned from that. I found out you don’t just have to be silent, you have to talk to people and you don’t just sit there and solve the person’s problem all by yourself. I show them how to do something. I’ll do some talking and check that they are following me. Then I get them to do it. I help people to do things themselves.’
Will’s learned as much from his customers as they have from him. ‘They look at me as a teacher not just as some kid.’ Some customers come as a one off to resolve a specific problem. Others like Peter and Dawn keep coming back. ‘At first Dawn came for help with email but now I teach her different tools like eBay and YouTube and she’s really satisfied. She wants to keep up with her friends and I help her do that.’
Getting older has helped. ‘When I started I was nowhere near as good as I am now. I’m more mature. Now when someone comes in I know it’s important to ask them what they want to learn.’
Dealing with the questions and queries – everything from how to use Facebook, Gmail, eBay or operate a digital camera – has forced Will to stay a step ahead. ‘They say that
I’m up to anything that comes through the door. It’s really good for my confidence. I’m thinking that in the future I’d like to work in technical support.’
‘I see one of our customers Peter as someone I can really talk to. He tells me things about
how he grew up and we’ve really bonded.’
Student Lyn Steele, 67
Lyn Steele, 67, was a bit nervous about going to the Digital Shed to get help with her new tablet. ‘I thought they’d be too brainy and they might talk down to me. But they made me feel really comfortable. It’s been just great.’
When she arrived, she told her student helper that she needed help setting up and learning to use her tablet. ‘I said to him “Now just pretend you’re talking to your nanna. It’ll go in one ear and out the other so you’ll have to repeat yourself.” He just roared laughing, he had a great sense of humour.’
Having individual help has made all the difference Lyn says. ‘I love the one-on-one. They answer my specific questions which is something you sometimes don’t get in a class.’
Lyn now uses her tablet daily for keeping up with her grandkids, playing games with friends and ‘sticky nosing all over the world’ on Google.
She’s so much more confident using technology and enjoys learning new ways of using it. She’s now bought a laptop as well as upgraded her phone, each time she visits the shed to
get help in setting up and using her new devices.
‘They treat you like you’re somebody. I don’t feel stupid asking questions, I don’t feel out of place. I’ve recommended it to all my friends.’