Research reflections – the 2019 Digital Inclusion Policy & Research conference

Published by Kate Gallant on

I had the opportunity to attend the Digital Inclusion Policy & Research conference last week hosted by Liverpool University in London. I wanted to share with you just a few points that caused me to ponder on our priorities and practice.

The presentation by Eleni Musi on ‘What is included under “digital inclusion”’ on day two of the event had a message for all of us. The term – digital inclusion – does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. Her analysis of the use of the term provided insights into how it is linked (for instance with ‘libraries’) and also how few references can be found about digital inclusion in the UK through a google alert. Her definition though seems complex:
Digital inclusion refers to the act of enabling the large public to be part of (or the state of being part) of the digital class featuring access and skills to digital tools with awareness of their privacy implications and their degree of algorithmic transparency.

From a practitioner perspective there is work to be done here which may be valuable in supporting communication and narrative about the purpose and nature of digital inclusion activity.

Other presentations that grabbed my attention were on ‘Digital equity: promoting the digital rights of citizens’ from Massimo Ragnedda (Northumbria University). His powerful argument rests on the entanglement of digital inequalities with social inequalities. He argues that:

Digital inclusion initiatives, therefore, must reduce the three levels of digital divide and promote the use of ICTs as a means to foster social inclusion and tackle social inequalities, by promoting three digital rights: Digital Access, Digital Competences and Digital Empowerment. In the end, the ultimate goal of digital inclusion process is to promote Digital Equity, namely the condition in which all citizens have the skills and information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, in terms of economic, social, personal, political and cultural well-being.

He defines ‘Digital Access’ as the right of free or affordable access to ICTs. This may require the public and private sectors to implement new policies and infrastructure to guarantee this access.
‘Digital Empowerment’ is defined as the right to use technologies to enhance the social position and ‘Digital Competencies’ as the ability to safely and competently access the internet.

His work is closely aligned with the priorities of access and skills that many digital inclusion projects are concerned with. As practitioners we also focus on motivation which is often a barrier for the most socially excluded who often also lack the confidence needed to help them overcome multiple barriers. Digital right(s) tend to be associated with open access to information, rather than a recognition (as here) that digital access, competency and empowerment are now a fundamental human right.
The conference was interesting for its international focus and opportunities to hear from researchers from across the continents.

Standing out for me was the work Lyubov Naydonova & Mykhaylo Naydonov from the Ukraine. Perhaps because of my former work and friendships in Eastern Europe I’ve followed closely the developments and horrors of the war in the Ukraine. Their work focuses on the impact on young people of the conflict. They collected data and information on the well-being of young people exposed directly to ‘war trauma experience’ and those affected by the cyber war and media exposure. Of concern is that their findings were that the level of impact on the young people who were exposed only to digital sources was comparative to the impact on the well-being of the young people experiencing direct trauma. This early indication of this negative outcome for young people (in a situation of high volume cyber warfare) will concern many. It suggests that on-going research into the mental health implications for young people of the use of media materials in cyber warfare will be essential to minimising harm.

The final work to highlight was the keynote presentation from Professor Ellen Helsper of the London School of Economics. Her ‘self-critique’ of her own work was refreshing in allowing us to hear her current thinking (from her involvement with international comparative analysis of digital skills to digital inclusion strategy, practice and insights from places such as Los Angeles and Latin America).

The key aspect for me was her focus on social-economic and social-cultural contexts and not just on individual skills. It is the interpersonal relationships and the social contexts in which learning takes place in schools, workplaces, and local communities that is being explored in research. This analysis of ‘micro-local worlds’ and use of the information to assist the formulation of policy was raised and recognised by the audience during questions.

Developing communities of learning has become a keen interest for me. How, in a workplace or community of older people for instance, can we create an environment which supports learning and gives people that right of ‘Digital Empowerment’? What would be the essential elements that would support such a community? Within One Digital we often recognise the value of peer to peer learning, we also are concerned with providing training which has been co-designed with the learners to ensure its relevance and accessibility. Certainly this will be a topic for the Community of Practice as we look shortly at a further event on ‘supporting digital skills in rural communities.’

For those who are interested in the conference programme you will find it here. This includes speaker details and abstracts of the presentations. We are expecting the slides to become available and will share them.

Our thanks to the conference organisers (especially Elinor Carmi from the University of Liverpool).

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