Family Fund is a UK charity which provides computers and tablets to lower-income families raising disabled or seriously ill children. In this post, Jenny Laycock describes the lessons learned from its latest programme, which aimed to improve families’ digital skills, and teamed up with another charity, AbilityNet, and volunteer networks to extend its support. They found that providing a more focused offering tailored to specific families was better than a one-size-fits-all approach, and that when it comes to feedback, less is often more. Jenny is the digital delivery manager at Family Fund.
In 2015, Family Fund set up a digital skills programme to help families on lower incomes who are raising disabled or seriously ill children get the most out of their digital devices. Family Fund is the UK’s largest charity providing grants to such families and one of the most-awarded grant items is computers or tablets, with over 12,000 devices provided last year. But the initial feedback indicated that many recipients lacked what would be considered by most as quite basic digital skills and therefore couldn’t make the most of their grants. Although a great deal of planning went into launching the scheme, there were still surprises encountered along the way – every single family had very specific training needs; we had to ensure that our training could fit around families’ other multiple commitments; and while evaluation was important, too much could be overwhelming. Each unexpected situation brought with it valuable lessons, five of which are outlined here and which may be useful for those who are planning similar initiatives.
- Start small, refine and adjust
We began the programme with a small pilot project focusing on two areas of the UK before rolling the programme out nationally. By doing this, we were able to identify key issues and problems with the model before expanding it more widely. This does not mean that the upscaled project was problem-free, but we had prepared ourselves for some of the challenges we knew we would encounter in the early stages. To ensure we continue to track problems and opportunities for improvement, we have a process for feedback from both families and trainers, ensuring we continually shape the programme to best meet the needs of families.
- Accept that not everyone fits a standard mould
We soon learnt that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach rarely works when it comes to helping people use technology, particularly for the families we support. Some of the parents/carers have never used a computer before (and wouldn’t choose to get a tablet if it wasn’t for the fact their child was using one in school), whereas others are generally competent in using IT but less confident about particular skills such as setting up parental controls on their tablet. When we also consider the needs of children with a wide range of conditions, including autism, learning disabilities, sensory impairments and complex physical disabilities, it is clear that each family will have a unique digital need. We realised early on that our training programme had to be similarly bespoke to each family and offer one-to-one training where possible.
- Recognise limitations – don’t try to do everything
Initially, we had intended for our programme to help people use many types of digital devices and support them with other aspects of the digital world, including online safety. However, we needed to balance the quality of training delivered against the quantity of families reached, and so decided to focus on training people to use tablets, which have particularly strong potential for supporting learning and development for children with additional needs.Although we had these self-imposed restrictions, we still wanted to provide some form of support for those who wanted help with other types of devices, and so we developed some supporting resources and signposting routes. We also approached external partners to help us meet this need. Increasingly, global technology companies are developing their own digital support programmes and many organisations, especially in the charitable sector, provide information and support to help families use digital technology safety. We now refer people to these organisations where Family Fund is unable to offer direct help. Most recently, we’ve joined forces with AbilityNet, which supports disabled people to use technology in their own homes through a national network of volunteers. Our partnership with AbilityNet allows Family Fund to offer one-to-one training on digital devices other than just tablets.
- Allow for the unexpected and ensure flexibility!
Although you know how much effort goes into your programme, the people you support are likely to have other priorities. Many families raising disabled children, for example, have particularly challenging lives as a result of the health and care needs of their child. Short-notice cancellations are not unusual, and we sometimes have to turn back trainers en route to the person’s house. Processes such as confirmation letters and SMS reminders have helped reduce cancellations, but there will always be times when people have to cancel their training at short notice and this needs to be allowed for. Similarly, while the majority of families who receive training through Family Fund’s programme find it valuable and useful in their day-to-day lives, some families still struggle (even after multiple training sessions). We offer further assistance on a case-by-case basis, although sometimes it is more helpful to the family if we recognise that we might not be the best organisation to support them and instead look for a referral option (see above).
- Evaluate without overkill
Evaluation is crucial in order to both measure success and refine your project in response to user need. In the initial stages, Family Fund was required to include evaluation questions set out by our funder, not all of which aligned with our own organisational objectives. The result was a very cumbersome evaluation process involving lengthy questionnaires. These incorporated questions required by the funder that proved quite difficult for some of our families to respond to. As a consequence, many families disengaged, reducing both the number and quality of submitted surveys. Fortunately, through discussion with our funding partners, we were able to adapt our evaluation, making it more concise and relevant. The return rate has increased and we can respond to individual feedback more effectively, making changes to the programme as necessary.
Although we’ve learnt a lot since 2015, surprises keep coming and we can never stand still. Feedback from the families, developments in technology, new funding opportunities and new digital initiatives (from video hacks through to face-to-face support from global technology organisations), all keep us on our toes. What’s crucial is that Family Fund’s digital skills programme continues to evolve with the ever-changing environment. If we can continue to do this, we can keep helping families raising disabled children to use digital devices in the ways that support their families’ needs.
The stories of families who have taken part in Family Fund’s Digital Skills Programme are available to read here and a full summary of the programme’s outcomes are detailed in the report, Building Digital Confidence. For more information on the programme and how to get involved, visit www.familyfund.org.uk/digital.
This post originally appeared on the One Digital website and it has been edited and reposted here with permission.
This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.