Time for a rapid response to the digital access challenge

April 1, 2020

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

COVID-19 and Wellbeing Blogs: 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.

If we were not fully aware of it already, the coronavirus lockdown has shone a bright spotlight on the importance of digital technology in supporting our personal, community and societal wellbeing.  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.

However this lifeline is not equally distributed.  According to Good Things Foundation, 11.3 million people in the UK don’t have the basic digital skills they need to thrive in today’s world.  For some years now the Carnegie UK Trust has had a focus on digital inclusion – supporting policy and practice that seeks to help people to get online, while maximising the benefits and mitigating the risks that digital access brings.

In recent years, we’ve had a particular emphasis on digitally excluded young people, a group that are often forgotten or overlooked, incorrectly assumed to be ‘digital natives’.  Barriers to inclusion include being limited to a smartphone which restricts users to a narrow set of tools and resources.  Some young people lack sufficient data allowance or have a strong reliance on public WIFI.  Additionally, an absence of digital skills can mean that digital use is concentrated on activities such as messaging or gaming rather than broader access to education and learning resources that is now being asked of them.

Regardless of demographic, many of those who are offline in this current situation are likely to be at a disadvantage; however there are some specific implications for young people.  The closing of schools, universities and colleges – an essential step in the battle against coronavirus – means that for the vast majority of children and young people, their own homes are now their only setting for learning and development.  As such, inequalities in access to learning and development have been substantially compounded, quite literally overnight.

In general terms, the provisions that schools are able to make to support pupils with remote learning can vary considerably depending on the skills and resources that they as institutions have at their disposal.   The time, skills, resources and motivation of parents and guardians with children suddenly at home full time, also vary hugely.  Within these complex and challenging issues, digital access is also of fundamental importance.  Access to a suitable digital device, a robust internet connection and the skills to make effective use of these, are essential if children are to access and benefit from digitally delivered educational resources and teaching during this period.

One key challenge in this field is that we do not have conclusive figures to demonstrate the extent of the digital divide experienced by young people.  Nonetheless, the greatest concern is that those children most likely to be disadvantaged according to almost every other social or economic measure are also most likely to be digitally excluded.  These are the children for whom a positive education experience can make the greatest difference.  Although the most vulnerable are still attending school, there remains a risk that a wider disadvantaged group are facing a significant increase in the inequality of their educational experience.  This will be compounded the longer the closure period continues.

Over the past few years, we have been working alongside academics, policymakers, charities and youth organisations and the young people they work with to unpack the barriers to digital inclusion and design solutions.  It is heartening to see that across the UK many organisations and individuals joining forces alongside government in rapid response to the current crisis.  We want to ensure young people are not forgotten in this push.  From our previous work, we know that tackling digital exclusion is a complex, multi-faceted challenge.  As well as access to a suitable and affordable device and internet connection, people need the skills, confidence and motivation to be able to use these.  Within the context of the rapid response to the coronavirus, there are fundamental ethical questions to be worked through, such as how any programme to tackle digital exclusion should identify appropriate criteria to determine those eligible to receive equipment; and what kind of safeguarding is required to ensure that children and young people are protected from harmful content online without overly restricting their access to information, particular software or useful methods of communication.

The current challenge is to mobilise an appropriate and effective response, which is able to overcome the vast array of barriers and unanswered questions in this complex sphere.  Some vital initial actions have already been delivered – including that many mobile providers have removed data charges for accessing NHS websites and that all of the UK’s main internet providers have removed all caps on home broadband packages.  In Scotland, the No One Left Behind digital inclusion initiative is coordinating public bodies, the private sector and charities  to reach those most vulnerable during the coronavirus lockdown.  FutureDotNow, supported by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, are coordinating industry action through a new initiative, DevicesDotNow, which is appealing for businesses to donate tablets, smartphones and laptops, as well as connectivity in the form of SIMs, dongles and mobile hotspots.  We are committed to play our part to support these vital efforts.

We will shortly be publishing further blogs on this topic sharing some recent learning around defining and measuring digital access – both building blocks to designing effective solutions.  We continue to engage with those developing practical solutions, welcome further discussions and encourage you to get in touch at [email protected].

You may also find these articles of interest:

As the lockdown bites, don’t forget Britain’s digital divide, Helen Milner: Good Things Foundation

Children must not become unseen victims of coronavirus, The Guardian reports on IPPR’s request to government for a digital access fund

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