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Creative thinking and positive action needed to ensure that everyone has Internet access

Dr Sangeet Bhullar, Founder of WISE KIDS

A photograph of a smiling teenage girl sat down at a desk using a laptop.

The impact of Covid-19 has been felt by all of us, but none more so than children and young people who’s families are unable to afford the data cost/ digital cost of going online, or are unable to get an Internet connection to meet their work and educational needs.

Covid has changed many things in our everyday lives. For so many, it has highlighted what we value, and what we are willing to do without. It has also highlighted the immense power of the Internet to keep friends and families connected, and help many businesses including mine, to provide alternate means of delivering services. Who would have thought that phrases like “Training on Zoom?”, or “Press unmute, we can’t hear you!”, would become common phrases?

However Covid has also shown us what is not working, and  how poverty can worsen the digital divide and deepen the inequalities between the haves and the have nots.

Increasingly we hear the phrases ‘data poverty’ and ‘digital poverty’. What do they mean? Very simply, they refer to a situation where people are unable to afford the data cost/ digital cost of going online, or where people are unable to get an Internet connection (of decent and adequate speed) to meet their work and educational needs.

This has consequences. Let’s take schools and young people as an example. We know that in lockdown, schools that had the vision, skilled staff and support to prepare for remote learning were at an advantage – able to deliver learning to their pupils, and ensure they did not fall behind (assuming most of their pupils also had good Internet access – broadband and devices). However some schools have simply not been able to provide an adequate equitable replacement offer for their pupils. They have had to deal with challenges of staff confidence and ability, lack of resources, as well as pupil and family receptivity to this change. So this was not a seamless exchange of physical school for a digitally mediated one. I think it is fair to say that many pupils, without the necessary teacher support, will simply fall behind.

In addition to this, we also have poorer families for whom an Internet connection is a luxury they cannot afford. In some cases, the choice families had to make choices  between providing  food for their families or having Internet access for themselves and their children. And so children from these families face additional difficulties.

From speaking to some teachers, I know that schools have tried to provide solutions for pupils who were not online by providing paper based handouts of lessons.

In this last year, Newport, my local authority published an article saying that at the time of the first lockdown, there were more than 2500 young people in Newport who didn’t have adequate technology for education at home. The local authority addressed this through a Welsh Government support program, and provided devices and wifi connectivity. Similarly, another local authority, Gwynedd, announced that they are going to provide all their Year 10 and 11 pupils with laptops because they recognised that without adequate technology, the pupils would get left behind.

Situations like this can seem unimaginable for many who take good Internet connectivity for granted. And this is simply one tiny example of how poverty and digital poverty can exacerbate existing divides.

We know that being Internet connected with good broadband and the right device can go a long way to open up opportunities for the everyday citizen. However we also know that access is only the starting point. The everyday citizen also needs to be inspired to learn and develop the knowledge, understanding, confidence and skills to get the most from online services and manage their privacy and safety online. Sometimes life circumstances mean that even with the access and the offer of learning opportunities online, people may not choose to engage.  For this we need to look at our human selves as a whole, what motivates us, what inspires some of us to engage fully in opportunities available.  We need to recognise the very real barriers that prevent people from realising their full everyday life potential, and address these needs.

Some years ago, I was involved in a small research project with the Wales Co-operative Centre exploring the digital skills and needs of young people at risk of homelessness. I met a young man who was supported by an amazing charity based in Cardiff, which offered him ‘learning’ in a way that was personal, supportive, and which did not feel like school. He explained how the centre he attended made him feel valued and offered him learning at his own pace, which he loved. He said he was gaining confidence and basic skills. He explained that he had missed out on secondary school. His desire to learn, something he promised his dying parent several years before, was evident. He wanted maths and literacy skills so he could manage his own finances. He had a basic phone, but did not have the means to afford anything more (or the desire for that matter).

What I took away from listening to this young man and others like him is that life circumstance plays a big role in the ‘if, when and how’ people engage with digital technologies. So if our aim is to encourage people to become skilled and confident digital citizens, we need to first listen and understand where they are at, what motivates them and what barriers they face, and to do this with kindness and care. And then to help create the scaffolding that will allow them to take the next steps in this journey.

Bearing in mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and where in this pyramid our service users and clients are, we can better co-design solutions to meet needs if we think of digital inclusion and digital participation/empowerment as a journey which starts with having access (broadband and kit) and basic digital skills. There are many invaluable projects like Digital Communities Wales who have provided immense support to help organisations and service users to be digitally included and to gain benefit from digital technologies. Some of this work has been in the much-needed social care settings.

But we also need to expand our understanding of the barriers that people face, and the eco-systems in which they operate so we can deliver real change. I am reminded of how we all are stakeholders and have responsibility for this collective journey towards getting everyday citizens digitally included and empowered.

More than 10 years ago, I was delivering training for teachers in Ceredigion, exploring digital literacy in education, and how educators could better engage their learners. The workshop also discussed amongst other things, the many positives that online gaming offered many children. One of the teachers who came from a school in a relatively poor area shared the school’s experience. They explained that that in their school, they had decided to start an after-school gaming club so pupils could play on the Xbox with their peers. They had recognised that for their pupils, online gaming with friends was an important social experience. They also knew that there were children in the school who came from families who simply could not afford the cost of the Xbox. They saw this gap and played their part to close the gap. This school showed vision, empathy and will.

We need more stakeholders and people with this ‘can-do’ attitude to close our digital poverty gap. From schools, colleges and universities, from community venues and libraries to businesses like our major Internet Service Providers. We need creative thinking and positive action to ensure that everyone has access to good quality, affordable Internet access. Some of these solutions may involve community shared broadband, upcycling of devices, physical centres where people can get support, or single point of contact helplines. Some solutions will require government and local authority investment in infrastructure. We also need to work with individuals and families who face digital poverty or who are less interested in being online to address barriers to participation in the digital economy – people’s own confidence, skills, education, self-belief amongst the many factors.

However, with commitment and planning, all of this is possible and do-able.

Dr Sangeet Bhullar is the founder of WISE KIDS, a non-profit company which empower young people, families, communities and professionals to develop their digital literacy and expertise, sense of agency and wellbeing so that they can thrive in a connected world. She is a member the Welsh Government Digital Inclusion Management Board, a Board member of Wikimedia UK. She can be found on Twitter as @sangeet