Economic and Social Research Council
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A project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on a South London housing estate has developed ways of teaching people the skills they need to make the most of today’s information technology. NIACE, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, will use the findings of the Penceil (How People Encounter E-Illiteracy and how they can take action to overcome it) project in its ongoing work within the government’s Skills for Life initiative.

A research group at the London School of Economics worked with residents and community organisations at the St Martin’s Estate in Lambeth.

They found that people who have trouble with IT tend to be poorer, older and less well-educated than average. But their fears about IT were reasonable ones. They did not know how to get help with computers, or how to protect them from viruses. They were alarmed by media stories about the hazards of computer use.

Additionally, according to researcher Mike Cushman, they were often prevented from using IT effectively by poor spelling. He says: “Many of the things people want to do with computers involve using search engines, which are very intolerant of words that are misspelt. Even with spellcheckers, that can mean people having a disappointing experience when they search online.”

The researchers involved in the Penceil project found that most of the courses available to potential computer users fail to help students do the things they most want. Top of the list are communicating by email, finding information online, and shopping via the web. They developed and taught a course to help them do this and to overcome their fears about using computers.

The LSE and NIACE researchers also developed more advanced material on topics such as contributing to blogs and online forums, as well as thinking about online privacy and the accuracy of the information found online.

Mr Cushman said: “Most of the ICT training material we saw is designed to help people at work, not at home, and concentrates on word processing or spreadsheets. Too little is directed towards home use. This can worsen social exclusion. Governments want to deliver more services electronically, but few of the people we encountered had any awareness of this change. Our research has shown that it is possible for IT skills to be taught and for people’s confidence as IT users to be enhanced.”

Mike Cushman, Tel: 020 7955 7426 0r email:  

ESRC Press Office:
Alexandra Saxon, Tel: 01793 413032, email:  
Danielle Moore, Tel: 01793 413122, email:  
Phillippa Coates, Tel: 01793 413119, email:  


1. The Pencil project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the ESRC’s e-society programme. This £6.5 million initiative ends in October 2007 and is the UK’s biggest-ever examination of how society uses and is changed by modern communications technology. The research was carried out by Dr Ela Klecun, Mike Cushman of the London School of Economics and Dr Alan Clarke of The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

2. The main phase of the project consisted of interviews with 47 people in and around St Martin’s, an area of high but not extreme social need, low income and educational attainment and high linguistic and ethnic diversity. The project had an advisory group from local community groups and education providers. Of the 47 sample, three were over 80 and 19 were born outside the UK. This part of the project was followed up by the development and delivery of the course Living with Computers in 12 one-hour lessons.

3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research relevant to business, the public sector and voluntary organisations. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2007 - 08 is £181 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at  

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at  

5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as ‘good’.

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