For nearly 20 years the Ara Institute of Canterbury has been delivering free computing courses in the community. They started in 2001 with programmes at their first community hub in Madras street in the central city. Since then six more hubs have been established – four more in Christchurch, and one each in Timaru and Oamaru.

Each year up to 2000 people take advantage of a growing suite of computer programmes, which have traditionally been designed to broaden people’s employment opportunities, or help them move into a formal qualification such as the New Zealand Certificate in Computing Level 3 (also available free at the hubs) or Level 4 (available at the hubs but at a small fee).

During the lockdown tutors developed three new digital courses designed to help people use some of the free Google applications.

Of the well-established computer courses, Digital Basics is the most popular. This 25 hour programme gives people the skills needed to use a computer and mobile devise for basic purposes including, file management, email, using the Internet to find information – and how to make sure that they are using their computer in an ergonomically safe way.

The other long established courses are: Access for Beginners (30 hours); Access Enhanced (34 hours); Excel for Beginners (40 hours); Excel Enhanced (32 hours); Keyboarding for Beginners (24 hours); Power Point for Beginners (20 hours); Publisher for Beginners (40 hours); Web Design for Beginners (40 hours); Word for Beginners (40 hours); and Word Enhanced (80 hours).

Towards the end of last year Peter Nock’s ACE team started thinking about the need to provide people with free Google courses that, while not directly related to helping people into employment, would give them increasingly vital digital skills. Peter is an Academic Manager in the Department of Enterprise and Digital Innovation: ”We realised that a big part of our community cannot afford to buy products, and that there is a whole range of free software out there, provided by Google. There really is a digital divide in New Zealand and we thought that helping people learn about this software, which can be used on any device, might help to address the problem.”

As Peter explained, it wasn’t until the lockdown that they got started on the development process: “ACE courses are not really set up for online delivery. People work at their own pace, with expert help available. And during the lockdown many of our ACE learners, the majority of whom are women aged 30–55, may not have been able to use the only computer in their home because their children may have needed to use it for study. So,we organised a team of three of our tutors to use the lockdown time to develop three new programmes.”

Becoming a Digital Citizen is a free 40 hours course teaching about apps, scams, smartphones, online forms, online shopping and helping people to understand digital identity and security so that they can stay safe online.

Google Apps – Tips and Tricks, gives people an opportunity to learn applications like Google Earth, Maps and Lens, how to watch and share video using YouTube, how to connect with others using Gmail, Hangouts and Duo, ways of making notes and getting a reminder, and how to use speak, scan, type or draw to translate in over 100 languages.

Google for the Office is a 40-hour free course that teaches people how to use free alternatives of Microsoft Office tools like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Because these Google files are web-based, they can be accessed from anywhere, using any device. Learners are taught how to set up a Google account so they can use Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides and Forms, including how to use Forms to collect and analyse data.

As word got out about these programmes people quickly started to enrol.

Peter says they are going through a period of change post-Covid and thinking about offering new courses at the community hubs – in response to a changing employment market.

From his point of view, the ACE funding criteria for tertiary institutions can be challenging to work with when you want to deliver hands-on courses with smaller groups of learners, and fwhen there is a lot for them to learn. “A more flexible funding model would allow for different ways to offer these courses and in more innovative ways – for example to blend in some online learning. That would allow us to extend the work that we do addressing the digital divide.”