Reflections on what might have been
Source: Office for National Statistics Households with Internet access by country 2009
Definitions of digital inclusion are many but they fall broadly into two camps. The UK Government definition set out in the Digital Inclusion Action Plan (Communities and Local Government, 2008)describes “direct” and “indirect” benefits of digital technologies: “The best use of digital technology, either directly or indirectly, to improve the lives and life chances of all citizens and the places in which they live”. This is a broad brush approach but identifies that technology can be used by citizens and for citizens with a view to tackling social exclusion. An alternative approach is to closely tie digital inclusion with access to computer technology and the acquisition of skills. “It includes the imbalances in physical access to technology as well as the imbalances in resources and skills needed to effectively participate as a digital citizen. In others words, it’s the unequal access by some members of society to information and communications technology, and the unequal acquisition of related skills” (Institute of Digital Learning, 2008)
In order to develop a clear blueprint for the future it needs a clear idea of what is meant by digital inclusion. Our recommendation would be to look to the broader definition.
It has been suggested that changes in technology are changing the ways in which individuals use technology so that access to skills does not necessarily predicate inclusion (Nash, 2011). This does not exclude the provision of skills training, but proposes that approaches to digital inclusion need to be in addition to and outside of skills based approaches. Such approaches are typified by the award-winning information charity “Young Scott” who’s Chief Executive; Louise Macdonald has championed the use of mobile technology with young people.
It is important to identify other related work being carried out elsewhere in an area and investigate partnerships with other agencies to carry forward the digital inclusion agenda.
There are positive and advantageous opportunities for partnership working that emerge from existing relationships between organisations in education and the third sector. These are exemplified by the discussions with partners in Health and Education and Youth Access Programmes.
In addition projects that show the potential for community based approaches to digital inclusion. Individuals who have had a bad experience of education are some of the most difficult to re-engage in learning if they have not already expressed a desire to do so. To engage an individual in IT skills and learning is often a step too far for someone lacking in any confidence. If the engagement can take place on their terms and within their intellectual and geographical comfort zone it is most likely to be effective in ‘hooking’ them as learners.
Projects sometimes suffer from changes in the funding regime. Consideration should be given to ways in which funding could be assured for community based projects which could then move participants from informal learning to accredited learning schemes. There should be well understood client pathways into local community based projects and then moving to accredited learning opportunities.
One of the biggest mistakes made in embedding First Steps Learning is the assumption that once hooked the individual is likely to continue. Hand holding through the transition from informal to formal learning is crucial if it is to be successful. Formal learning processes make many assumptions about the individual’s confidence and ability to negotiate the route through enrolment and attendance at an initial class. The smallest perceived barrier can set back the new learner and result in a re-affirmed belief that they are no good and can never learn. The hand holding overcomes this by recognising the barriers, supporting in overcoming these and alerting staff at all stages to the possibility of confidence failure in the learner.
Three things have been essential to having digital inclusion projects go well:
Engagement – working with the community and communities of interest and taking the time to reach out to people, especially through trusted intermediaries. Too many projects have over emphasized capital investment / formal training and inadequately resourced this engagement element.
Enabling – Projects require strong leadership to work, from the most senior project champion downwards and need to enable the leadership skills of all of those in the value chain.
Embedding – ensuring that the programme is central to other strategies and programmes rather than a bolt on. In this way business cases can genuinely be built. It is essential that the technology skills and motivation of key frontline staff are considered / enhanced as part of programmes.
This is not Ohio, you are not Kevin Costner and if you build it, they will not come. Digital Inclusion is not just an essential component of a digital society and a knowledge economy it is a fundemental right and in my view should be enshrined in a constitution. So let us not forget, as we wave our iPhones in the air and clutch our iPads, that the headline may be the British obsession with mobile but the story is the exclusion of significant elements of our society.