One of the issues facing those interested in digital inclusion research is the incredible speed at which new publications emerge: the sheer quantity of pertinent information, both coming from the field of practice and from academic study, can be overwhelming. Over the last few months, my colleagues and I have been peddling upstream, collating the most recent research, and pulling it together in one, hopefully useful, space.
In terms of learnings from this rapid review of literature, we now have a more nuanced understanding of individuals at risk of digital exclusion. While age remains a factor, with older adults still often struggling with Essential Digital Skills, we are seeing greater evidence of additional factors which make digital exclusion more likely. In particular, people who are struggling financially, or who are living with a disability are more likely also to be struggling with essential digital skills. Access both to reliable connectivity and devices remain an issue, as does the development of essential digital skills. We are also developing our knowledge of the importance of both digital attitude and understanding, and how this impacts on our ability, and desire, to access the benefits and opportunities the internet affords. Furthermore, the most recent statistics show that while 90% of jobs require digital skills, a significant percentage of people do not have the essential skills they need to participate in a workplace increasingly reliant on the application of technology.
Since our last rapid review, there has been significant work in the field as to how we might best evidence success in our work to address digital exclusion, with frameworks such as the Essential Digital Skills Framework and the accompanying toolkit allowing organisations to capture data both around an individual’s priorities in terms of learning, and around individual progress in essential digital skills. Application of such frameworks across organisations both the public and third sector will hopefully allow for a greater understanding not just of what works, but also how individuals progress their learning. This data will also allow us to better understand where there are ‘gaps’ – as we are increasingly seeing research pointing to individuals may have some digital skills but are not necessarily equipped to transfer these skills to other areas.
Research also points to two areas of challenge for practitioners. Firstly, in addressing issues related to cyber security. Privacy and security are key concerns both for those offline and for those supporting them, and this area will require continual support to enable individuals to feel confident in their own ability to manage personal privacy and security, and to share this knowledge with others in their roles as digital champions.
Secondly, research shows that individuals providing support and care are particularly concerned about the possible impact of digital access on people who may already be considered vulnerable, and that this, in turn, impacts on the ability of those people to develop essential digital skills and understanding. Again, it is vital that organisations consider the concerns of individuals in support roles, and work together to seek meaningful and flexible solutions, and also to identify useful training or necessary policies to encourage confident digital participation.
A final point to make is, unsurprisingly, there’s still a WHOLE LOT TO DO! Digital inequality continues to impact on the most vulnerable as statutory services move increasingly online (Universal Credit being a prime example). Research evidences that through person-centred, nuanced support, at point of need, by people who have both skills and confidence, we are able to help people engage in the online world.
Irene Warner-Mackintosh is managing director with Mhor Collective, a community interest company focussed on digital inclusion. She is also a PhD student at The University of the West of Scotland and is part of The Centre for Culture, Sport and Events (CCSE). CCSE has developed from a collaborative partnership between the University of the West of Scotland and Renfrewshire Council. Irene’s research is funded by a collaborative studentship between University of the West of Scotland and SCVO, as part of One Digital. She tweets as @irenewarnermack.