UK Online

Learning about computers with UK online centres is helping retired Newcastle sisters Elizabeth Stephenson and Valerie Schollar put their creative talents to use, and get more active in their local communities. 

Cake-baker and card-maker Elizabeth, 56, and the younger of the two, was the first to take the plunge into the virtual world. 

“All I knew about computers was how to switch one on, after that, I was scared stiff – terrified of breaking the machine and terrified of losing things that other people had done!  Then a council magazine came through the door offering free computer courses for absolute beginners at a local UK online centre.  I thought: ‘That’s me!’.  I picked the phone up straight away and put my name down at Building Futures East, just down the road from where I live.”

Elizabeth was surprised by how quickly she made progress. 

“I worked my way through myguide and Online basics, learning all about emailing, word processing and spreadsheets. Before I knew where I was, I’d been emailed a certificate saying what I’d achieved.  I felt fantastic!   Being able to turn the computer on without panicking was my first achievement, but soon I was sending emails to family and friends, and looking up new ideas for decorating cakes and designing cards.  After just 10 weeks, I knew how to do far more than I expected, including storing documents and attaching pictures and files to emails.  David at the centre made me feel so comfortable I just wanted to do more and more.”

Learning about computers has also helped Elizabeth develop a bit of a business out of her cake making. 

“I wanted to go to catering college when I left school, but catering is poorly paid, so I veered off in another direction and came back to it when I was 49.  In three years, I’d got to professional level in cake-making.  The first cake I made was a christening cake and then I was invited to make an engagement cake for a millionaire’s son.”

“The internet has been the icing on the cake – quite literally!  I’ve found lots of new ideas for cakes and I buy decorations and ingredients online from  If I hadn’t learnt about internet safety by doing the Online basics course, paying online would certainly have been step too far for me.  Because I know what to look out for I’m now confident buying online, and I’ve found from my computer all sorts of things I just wouldn’t have come across if I’d visited all the baking and craft shops in the whole of the North East.”

When she’s not busy in the kitchen, Elizabeth’s cutting and sticking at the dining-room table. 

“My other hobby is card-making and the internet’s perfect for that too.  I buy templates for the cards and cut-outs to decorate them.  I’m selling more and more cakes and cards and the money I’m earning is going towards a holiday in Florida with my daughter, my daughter-in-law and my grandson.”

Then Elizabeth’s older sister Valerie got bitten by the IT bug too.

“My grandson lives with me and he’s had a computer in his room for ten years.  One day, when he was playing outside, he let me have a go.  I switched it on and had a look, but then I couldn’t switch it off!  I was worried that I broken it.   I shouted out of the window and he told me to turn off the on switch.  It’s still a mystery to me: if a switch is called an on switch, why would you use it to turn something off?  It turned me off, I can tell you that.”

After that, Valerie forgot all about computers, and decided they weren’t for her after all.  But then, when she retired, she changed her mind.

“I’ve always loved learning and have to be busy. At school, I had to choose between sewing and typing.  I chose sewing, and ended up working as a machinist in a tailor’s.  Now, I’m Treasurer of Kenton Bar Tenants and Residents Association, which represents the people who live on my estate, and I’m a member of the Tenants Federation Executive.  I’ve been working with volunteers there every Thursday and Friday morning since I retired, helping to run the association.” 

It was Valerie’s determination to do more for the association that gave her the push she needed to take the plunge into technology. 

“The YMCA had moved out of a small shop on the estate to go to new premises and the tenants’ association had the idea of taking it over. We managed to win some Big Lottery funding to turn the empty shop into an office and drop-in centre.  I realised that if I could use the computer we have in the office, I could get on top of all the finances in the winter, when there’s less going on socially.”

Valerie heard about some local courses and started off by doing a level 2 (GCSE equivalent) in maths.  But then the centre moved, so Elizabeth suggested to Valerie that she go with her to Building Futures East instead.

“I took to it like a duck to water. On my very first session, I did a Powerpoint presentation.  Then I moved on to Googling.  The first thing I looked up was a site about my favourite dogs, West Highland terriers.   Then I learnt how to put a hyperlink in a Powerpoint slide to show off the photographs I had found.  It may sound complicated, but it made such a difference having David there to ask.  Nothing’s every too much trouble for him, and it doesn’t matter how many times you ask him the same thing.”

Now Valerie’s putting her Powerpoint skills to good use for the tenants’ association.

“I make all the posters and leaflets for the social events we put on in the summer. We have summer parties with things for the kids, including an army display, a contortionist, a fire engine, a clown and a tombola!  I do all the posters and leaflets we put in shop windows and through people’s doors.  I love being able to choose which font to use and using colours to make them bright and eye-catching.  I can also keep track of every penny that comes in and out throughout the year using spreadsheets.  I’m even doing graphs to show how the finances work and make it simple to understand for everyone.  It’s great to know that I’m making a difference. Because of what I’ve learnt with UK online centres, I’m not just helping out, I’m bringing new ideas in too.”

Elizabeth’s computer skills are also coming along in leaps and bounds.

“My confidence has built up very quickly. My daughter had a laptop she wasn’t using so I plucked up the courage to switch it on and have a look around it.  That decided me: I needed my own laptop at home.  I went to have a look at them, and followed David’s advice not to buy one that was too expensive.  On the day I bought it, I took it home like a kid with a new toy. That very same evening, I set it up all by myself, just by following the instructions.  It was a brilliant feeling knowing I’d done it, and it meant I hadn’t had to pay anyone to come and do it for me.”

Being online has given both sisters a new lease of life.

“Elizabeth and I didn’t have computers when we were at school. It’s so easy to say that it’s not for our generation if you’re older, but that’s rubbish!  It’s for everyone, and I’d heartily recommend everyone to give it a go.”

Elizabeth agrees.

“The more you do, the more you want to do and the faster and more efficient you become. Never mind age being a barrier – I’m just getting going!  Next, I’m going to be setting up my own website to sell my cards and cakes.  If it’s so easy to buy things online, selling them must be just as easy!  I can’t wait to find out.”