Supporting older people’s digital confidence with University of Leeds’s Writing Back project

Writing Back is an intergenerational digital pen pal project which pairs students at the University of Leeds with older residents across Yorkshire to exchange emails. The scheme was established to help tackle loneliness and social isolation but organisations supporting older people have found involvement in the scheme supports members to develop transferable digital skills and confidence. Burmantofts Community Friends have partnered with the Writing Back team to connect six of their members with students for a year.  Engaging with the scheme has motivated members to build digital skills and confidence. 100% Digital Leeds is partnering with the Writing Back programme to support them to identify and build relationships with Leeds organisations working with older people interested in taking part in the programme.

“It’s good to be able to connect with someone different and it’s also good for teaching skills.”

Kelly, Outreach and Digital Engagement Worker, Burmantofts Community Friends.

Supporting improved digital skills and confidence at Burmantofts Community Friends

Burmantofts Community Friends is a charity supporting people aged over 60 in and around LS9, the neighbourhood with the lowest average household income in Leeds. Recognising that lack of motivation is a significant barrier to their members engaging with digital, Burmantofts Community Friends take a creative approach to supporting digital inclusion. The organisation embeds opportunities for digital engagement across their service offer, highlighting the ways digital tools and services can support members to continue living independently. Their Breakfast and Browsers group supports members to develop transferable digital skills such as using QR codes, making online payments, and scanning and uploading documents through creative projects such as day trips and reminiscence work.

The opportunity to take part in the Writing Back project came about at the same time that Burmantofts Community Friends received funding to gift tablets with 4G data to their Breakfast and Browsers members unable to afford their own devices. After supporting members to set up email addresses, Burmantofts Community Friends faced the challenge of how to best support members to practise sending and receiving emails, an essential skill needed to keep in touch with friends, family, and services, without one-to-one support from the organisation. Taking part in the Writing Back programme enabled Burmantofts Community Friends to offer an email pen pal for each member interested in hearing about members’ hobbies and interests.

After initial reluctance, feedback from Breakfast and Browsers members has been positive. Participants were excited about receiving a reply, which motivated them to keep the conversation going and to further practise their email skills, including developing new skills such as how to send emails with attachments. One member’s first pen pal email was five words long, and by the end of the six month programme she was sending full paragraphs.

“I had members saying ‘I’ll never be able to do it’ and by the end they were doing it on their own, sending emails backwards and forwards to their pen pals. People were excited to look at their emails, not stressed. People like sharing their stories.”

Kelly, Outreach and Digital Engagement Worker, Burmantofts Community Friends.

The Writing Back programme

Established in 2014, the award winning Writing Back programme is based in the International Student Office and Global Community Team at The University of Leeds. In addition to providing support around health and wellbeing the team signpost students to volunteering opportunities. Writing Back started life as an intergenerational letter writing programme to tackle loneliness and social isolation for both international students and older people across Yorkshire. During the pandemic the programme moved to using email, which resulted in an added dimension of improving digital literacy skills and digital communication.

I can honestly say it has been an incredibly enjoyable experience so far. The premise of the project revolves around connecting with people from diverse backgrounds, exchanging thoughts, stories, and ideas through the written word. It’s a fantastic opportunity to explore different perspectives and cultures, creating a true global conversation.

Feedback from International student, University of Leeds

Student participants attend training to prepare them for the role. Going forwards, 100% Digital Leeds will deliver additional digital inclusion awareness training for students involved in the programme, helping them to understand how they fit into the larger digital inclusion network of support being delivered across Leeds.

Taking part in Writing Back

The University of Leeds is interested in partnering with organisations supporting older people in Leeds. For more information, or to register your interest in taking part, contact us.