Digital Literacy and related terms are very topical at the moment in the UK, as we approach a whole year of the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions of our freedoms. But what is Digital Literacy, and what do related media phrases mean … are you suffering from Digital Poverty, Exclusion*, or find yourself on the wrong side of the Digital Divide? Read on to find out why these things matter.
(*Ed. i.e. the opposite of Digital Inclusion)
There is a proliferation of Digital things in the media and public debate at the moment, which seldom help to demystify jargon or add clarity. As an aside, Digital simply means two-state electronic signals or data storage, as compared with analogue, i.e. real world information that exists on a continuous scale (sound & light waves, measurements, and so-called real numbers etc.) This is relevant if comparing, for example, terrestrial TV, radio, and land-line phones with their replacement technologies. However, to all intents and purposes the internet (including email), web, phone, TV, satellite and streaming services are all digital, so wither the Digital adjective? And a lot of other aspects of our working, leisure, and family lives are going the same way … including, but not limited to; government services, banking, shopping, gaming, customer service, virtual meetings/remote working/home schooling, and some medical & social services.
It is also reasonable to say that we are living through the information age, and have been since rapid advances in computing power and miniaturisation, transistors and integrated circuits post-WW2, so this post is not just for Digital Natives, i.e. those tech-savvy, mobile phone-wielding children of the C21st. We live in a Digital Age, technology is ubiquitous, there is little opportunity to live your life entirely without some tech – so let’s move on and try to understand what the Digital-something sound bites really mean!
Here are some definitions:
Digital Literacy – the ability to find, evaluate, utilise, create, share, and communicate information using Digital technologies.
Digital Poverty – being without a core part of a technology and means to benefit from Digital Services and communication technologies, simply put, the device (hardware), software & network (internet/web). We shall see later that this definition and set of needs is not complete
Digital Inclusion/Exclusion – as above, having the necessary equipment & skills to be an active participant in the Digital World. Again there is a bit more involved, see later Barriers to Entry.
Digital Divide – as above, being excluded due to money, access, or other circumstances may put an individual on the wrong side of a notional divide of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. To put this into perspective, the ONS report Exploring the UK’s digital divide estimated that as recently as 2018, 8% of people in the UK (4.3 million adults) have zero basic digital skills, with a further 12% (6.4 million) only having limited abilities online, missing at least one of the basic digital skills.
This is not a new phenomena; throughout history, not having equal – or at least unfettered – access to education, skills, money, opportunity (for example, for upward-mobility and social movement), a stable and tolerant government*, and personal freedoms has always caused inequalities.
*In the author’s opinion there is not an active prejudice against any particular group with respect to Digital Literacy, but history may prove me wrong. I don’t believe that the ‘on-liners’ operate a cabal to prevent ‘off-liners’ getting full access to the internet and the transformational power of technology, This is not a politically-motivated post.
Barriers to Entry and Inclusion
Most people reading this will, by definition, have the basic tools to get online, and benefit from the advantages that this offers. However, unlike previous technologies there is a more subtle series of gradations of use.
Barriers to entry – or full exploitation – of Digital Technologies and the internet can include:
- Cost of equipment, including upgrades and maintenance
- Connectivity to the internet, i.e. affordable data and reliable & adequate speed (bandwidth)
- Social, personal, environmental or opportunistic factors, such as privacy, shelter, and a safe place to communicate, work, learn etc.
- Accessibility due to particular health issues or impairments, such as hearing, sight, learning difficulties, mental illness etc.
- Language & cognitive skills to understand the sometimes complex and confusing jargon
- Education and support. For example, to find and access the services required, keep personal data safe, understand the risks etc. …
- … and finally, the confidence to fully engage, given the right motivation!
(With reference to no.4, I recently attended a webinar about NHS efforts to use digital technologies to improve mental health services. The pandemic has helped to raise awareness of mental health and to focus efforts and funding on these initiatives. The speakers acknowledged that the future of digital is already here. The use of, ‘combined technology and traditional delivery’, is a model that is applicable beyond health and government digital services.)
The above list can be broadly summed up as access.
In normal times – i.e. outside of a pandemic – some of these barriers can be mitigated by the equivalent service being available off-line or community-based, such as, internet terminals in libraries, drop-in centres and charity outreach programmes, [human] agents in high street banks and shops etc. Even when all the above start to open again and people feel safe to go back to normal, it is likely that the new normal and the inevitable tide of progress will mean that more of the services that we all need, and choose to access, will be online and (only?) accessible remotely.
There’s one other factor that came out strongly in the ONS survey (ibid); households without internet access cite a ‘lack of need, usefulness or interest’ in the internet as the reason (64%), followed by lack of skills (20%), and cost (16%).
As early as 2014 Ofcom reported that mobile and internet services are now deemed as ‘essential’ services, with personal internet access only slightly below voice communications (landline or mobile). There are age differences, as you would expect, with older respondents being less motivated to have a smart phone. However, I believe that we are beyond the tipping point where everyone should have access to the internet, possibly with help (see next section).
What about [Adult] Learning?
I said at the beginning of this post that we all live in the Digital Age, but I want to briefly look at Adults and the later items on the barriers list, reframed as the wants & needs for a learner:
- The desire and motivation to learn Digital Skills
- Appropriate education [materials], instruction and guidance
- A safe and supported place to learn and seek advice
- The confidence to be self-sufficient and a sense of ownership of the technology at our disposal
I’m assuming that children and young-adults in full-time education should receive this level of guidance from teachers, family and other advocates … but who provides the same for adults?
As adults we are out of school a lot longer than we are in school, so adult life-long learning, and more importantly learning for life, is a significant factor in Digital Literacy. It’s not simply a case of getting a certificate at 16 or 18 years old, if the technology and/or your needs have fundamentally changed by the time you are 21, or 25, or 35 …
The reasons why Adults learn, their motivations & perspectives, and how they learn differently than children is a huge subject in its own right. The differences between pedagogy & andragogy will be the topic of a separate post.
I sincerely hope that IT elementary school can be part of the solution for the Digital Skills gap, alongside other communities of friends, neighbours, family, experts, and employers etc. Learning may seem like a lonely solo-pursuit but, to borrow a pandemic truism, we are all in it together!
IT elementary school can’t be your full-time teacher or guardian, but we want to be your new supportive community and your new home on the web.
And finally – what about the post-Covid world?
It is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a major disrupter in our lives, accelerating the need for technology-enabled solutions. You might even say that the normal push from the tech-sector has become a pull from governments, organisations and individuals? Demand is racing ahead of technology provision, not the other way around. However, with my crystal ball I predict there will always be change, new technologies, new challenges, and new things to learn … with or without the ‘Digital’ prefix.
(c) 2021 IT elementary school