Digital access update: finding a way ahead

May 15, 2020

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By Georgina Bowyer, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Rapid response underway

The Carnegie UK Trust works to improve personal, community and societal wellbeing. Many of the issues that we work on, and the partners and groups who we work with, are deeply affected by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing a series of blogs with reflections and questions across these different aspects of wellbeing. We are interested in learning from others, so please get in touch to share your reflections on how communities, networks and organisations are responding.

A month has passed since our last blog on digital access, and there have been a number of new responses to the pressing needs of those who are digitally excluded at this difficult time of coronavirus lockdown.  Responses on a national level include the Connecting Scotland initiative (formerly known as ‘No One Left Behind’) led by the Scottish Government and a commitment from the UK’s Department for Education to provide devices for a number of specific groups of children and young people.  With support from the UK’s Department for Culture and Media and Sport, Devicesdotnow is already distributing donated and refurbished devices, mostly through Online Centres.  At a local level many local authorities, schools, charities and businesses are helping to make provisions for their communities.[1]  This adds to efforts by tech providers early on in lockdown to whitelist some websites and increase broadband allowances.[2]

From the ability to search for the latest health information, contacting family and friends, purchasing essential goods, or undertaking paid work, access to digital has been a lifeline for much of the UK population practicing self isolating or social distancing.  For the majority of children and young people, their own homes are now their only setting for learning and development and access to digital significantly broadens learning opportunities and the chance to connect with resources, teachers and peers.  There remains an urgency in our collective response to this crisis to ensure that as many people as possible are connected as quickly as possible, yet nonetheless significant challenges and questions remain.  The knotty problems that have confronted changemakers in this space over recent years have not disappeared.

Challenge 1: Defining digital exclusion

An essential, but complex question is who and how many people lack digital access?  In order to quantify this, a definition of digital inclusion must be agreed.  At the Trust, we refer to ‘adequate digital access’ which means having sustainable affordable access to a suitable digital device, an internet connection and an appropriate level of skills and abilities to navigate the digital world safely, securely and productively.[3]

Of course, there remains a great deal of subjectivity in these statements, including what might be considered ‘affordable’ or an ‘appropriate level of skills’.  However, our intention is to highlight different ways in which a person’s digital access can be significantly limited – whether that is someone with a smartphone on a limited data contract and a narrow skills set restricting their digital use to messages and gaming; or a person with access to an eight year old laptop at home which is shared with multiple family members and where the cost of the internet package impacts the budget available for food.[4]  The ‘affordability’ component is included in our framework as a vital part of access – but what is affordable in terms of both a device and connection?  How do we assess how many devices or what speed of connection is adequate for a family with multiple requirements for example, and is that assessment affordable to them?

Challenge 2: Quantifying digital exclusion

With the intention of trying to capture and quantify some of these complexities, we reviewed the nationally representative data that could be used to assess each component of digital access.  Our focus, as part of the Digital Access for All taskforce, was on children and young people in the UK.

Capturing consistent information about a phenomenon that is constantly changing is inherently challenging – even the time gap between data capture and publishing can be significant.  It is often impossible to link data sets across sources given the varying timescales and types of data collected.  Given the link between digital exclusion and other vulnerabilities, there is a concern that digitally excluded individuals are often left out of research and unreached by services.  Whilst Ofcom data provides significant insight into questions around connection, devices and affordability, skills are more difficult to quantify, particularly given that most of the current definitions and corresponding data on digital skills are aimed at adults.  The IT/computing national curriculums across the UK are a helpful reference point, although there is no consistent baseline or measure for the digital skills of children and young people across the jurisdictions.

Given the complexity of defining and quantifying digital exclusion, current initiatives must make their best efforts to identify those in need – and different initiatives are prioritising people differently.  For example, Devicesdotnow targets those most vulnerable to coronavirus, and the UK’s Department of Education is targeting young people leaving care, children with social workers and 15 year olds who are working towards exams.  Each initiative has rationale for their prioritisation, and any effort to reduce exclusion and disadvantage should be applauded; however it is highly likely that there will continue to be those who do not have adequate digital access and whose needs will fall through the gaps and will not be met under the current provisions.

Challenge 3: Tailored solutions

The impacts of digital exclusion will be felt across communities and individuals differently. Barriers to inclusion will vary. Not all digitally excluded individuals are in need of a new device.  Given the variation in need – from a poor internet connection to a lack of skills, solutions must be tailored.  Evidence has shown that the most effective digital skills support is provided by someone local to you or even someone you know, and that motivation is crucial to success.  This means that tailoring support to help people explore their own interests or needs online is more effective than a set curriculum.  This is costly and complex to deliver at scale, and particularly challenging during lockdown when face-to-face interaction is not possible.

Challenge 4: Potential harms

There is potential for significant and wide-ranging harms in giving children and young people access to digital at home.  There are serious ethical considerations both for this access itself and the tracking of potential and unintended consequences of increasing digital access in any form.  Additionally while these issues are relevant for all children and young people, there are additional challenges for those children and young people with complex social circumstances. How can we ensure support for those supporting young people in these contexts with a focus on resilience over restriction?

Challenge 5: Longevity

The lockdown situation puts some of the longstanding challenges in a new light: is a response that is faster and cheaper but only partially effective preferable to no response at all?  How can rapid responses be balanced with a medium and long term approach?  For example, in terms of devices that are issued, will people be able to access updates or replacements when needed?  In terms of skills support, could additional learning opportunities be offered to recipients once social distancing restrictions have been lifted?  And how can the excellent progress that is made now be solidified and built upon going forward, when the need is less visible?

A final consideration to flag is that there are people who actively chose not to be online.  There is a difficult balance to draw between respecting people’s choices, supporting individuals to see the benefits of being online, and meanwhile the pressure of many services becoming ‘digital by default’.

The way ahead

At Carnegie UK Trust, we are involved in the Connecting Scotland initiative and separately we’re convening a UK-wide informal discussion group with a focus on children and young people.  We know there are many fantastic organisations nationally and locally who are working innovatively to help people get connected.  Both the strategic view and the community connections are crucial in tackling this challenge.  We are interested in helping to ensure that efforts are joined-up, do not duplicate and effectively reach those in need.  Our discussions with others during this period have highlighted several suggestions for consideration as we map the way ahead:

  • We are concerned that while the UK’s Department for Education initiative is positive, it does not go far enough in providing devices and support for all digitally excluded children and young people in education. This includes that some may continue to struggle to afford the data that they need to make use of the devices they are offered.  There remains untapped potential to work across sectors bringing together tech providers, government and the voluntary sector to work towards a broader response to the digital inclusion of children and young people.  We would also flag that the Department of Education programme applies to England-only and that we would hope to see similar initiatives continuing to emerge in the other UK jurisdictions.
  • Pay as you go (PAYG) mobile customers and particularly those without any other access to the internet remain particularly vulnerable. The steps that tech providers that have already made could be extended to ensure that PAYG customers can access vital services by phone or online without charge.
  • This is an overwhelming time for everyone and parents face particular challenges. Initiatives providing devices to children and families can show awareness of this and offer support and encouragement to families to begin their digital journey at a pace that they are comfortable with.  Planned support structures (e.g. by phone) are needed from the point of delivery, but should also have a long-term view whereby families are encouraged to build their digital skills gradually over the coming weeks and months.
  • Rapid response initiatives are to be applauded, but we urge government, business and the voluntary sector to build in a long term view, and to begin to lay the foundations for efforts that will continue to fight digital exclusion over the coming weeks, months and years. This could include permanent programmes of device provision for vulnerable children and young people to support their education, ongoing updates to software and hardware for those that receive devices, and continuing skills support for those that require it.

 

Photo courtesy of freepik – www.freepik.com

[1] For example https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/business/drax-supplying-hundreds-laptops-children-help-them-keep-learning-during-lockdown-2544620

[2] See https://www.gov.uk/government/news/mobile-networks-remove-data-charges-for-online-nhs-coronavirus-advice and https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-52091359

[3] You can read more on this here https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/publications/switched-on/

[4] As described here https://www.communicationsconsumerpanel.org.uk/research-and-reports/dont-cut-me-off-the-experiences-of-communications-consumers-living-in-low-income-households-in-the