The shift to online learning 

The pandemic changed everything for the WEA and our learners. We knew we had to start think about expanding our offer of online courses.  

We are an adult education charity that knew the importance of teaching in local communities. Our learners travelled on average 2.5 miles to attend their course. Delivering in an online world was a significant step. 

We also knew that many of our current learners belonged to groups that are often left out of the online world. Our learners are older people, people whose first language was not English, people from the most disadvantaged postcodes. We wanted to keep adult learning within reach. 

We needed to use online learning to reach more people and give learners more flexibility. 

When lockdown hit in March 2020, the WEA had to change to deliver everything online. From training tutors, to delivering online materials. 

It was a great achievement but also borne out of necessity. Even in the strict lockdowns, WEA learners were able to continue their courses. New opportunities, such as a weekly lecture for members, emerged.  

It quickly became clear, however, that not all WEA learners could make the shift across to digital. Where we could, we provided paper-based resources for those who could not join courses online.  

Barriers to online learning 

The causes of digital poverty are the same barriers that hold people back from online learning. Poor broadband, no access to hardware, unaffordable data and lack of digital skills, make online learning impossible for some. 

We also don’t want digital poverty from holding anyone back from booking a course, which is why we take telephone bookings via our call centre as well as online bookings via our website. 

Building digital confidence 

One of the most pressing needs we have as a nation is improving digital skills. The WEA offers a broad range of digital skills courses for adult learners of all abilities. From the very basic courses to Level 3 IT courses, we’re opening people up to a brand new online world. 

We know that for many learners, it isn't just as simple as switching on a computer and gaining digital skills. They need a guide by their side to help them gain confidence. 

“I couldn't hold the mouse still, you know, I was scared of it, you know.... I've evolved from being a shaking guy, you know, to getting really confident and competent with it. And I can't get enough of it now. And I said I'd recommend it to anybody to do because if you're like me, you get nerves and scared and afraid of computers,” James, learner. 

Beyond computer courses 

For some people, there is no motivation to do a digital skills course just for the sake of learning digital skills. Adult education can help people gain digital skills through things that matter to them. Our courses offer opportunities to learn digital skills. For example, learning how to use genealogy software to explore family history or getting better understanding of spreadsheets on a basic budgeting course. 

If you're looking to help people you know who struggle with their digital skills, the WEA is a great place to start. You'll find a wide range of courses, to help people with their digital skills whatever their goals. From using computers to find a job, to being able to shop safely online, our courses are open to all. 

Ending digital poverty - how adult education can help 

As End Digital Poverty Day highlights, lack of access to the online world increases inequality. Products and services can be more expensive or potentially not accessible at all. Opportunities to study or seek work or connect to essential services may be entirely closed off. We're seeking to help people open those opportunities, by gaining the skills and confidence they needed. 

What makes adult learning so powerful and accessible is the opportunity for learners to spend time with others from similar backgrounds or facing similar challenges. Supported by a tutor who interacts with the group as an equal and with an understanding of their needs. Adult learners experiencing digital poverty find support at the WEA, because we understand the wider context. This might lead to signposting to other services which can offer financial support or proving laptops to help learners get online. 

The WEA has been through its own digital journey and at every step we have considered what online learning means to our learners. The Adult Community Learning sector is uniquely well placed to provide the kind of 360 degree support which people will need if they are digitally excluded. 

 Local services, including community learning, can only tackle digital exclusion if the wider national and regional strategic framework is equally joined up. This is why funders and policy-makers should heed the Digital Poverty Alliance’s comprehensive National Delivery Plan to end digital poverty by 2030. 


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About the author

Jessica Holloway Swift

Employability & Skills Marketing Manager

Jess is an experienced marketing manager with a special interest in employability marketing and learner engagement.