Don Passey, Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Education Research at Lancaster University, argues that one-off technological solutions will not bring digital participation for all. He elaborates the infrastructure and other requirements of different or disadvantaged groups and points out key questions that must be asked.

Whilst I am concerned that our technological infrastructure is robust, wide, is usefully appropriate to purpose and is kept up-to-date, I am also concerned that this infrastructure is fundamentally able to support and serve people. Technological infrastructure on its own will not lead to digital participation for all people. Digital participation means engagement that is brought about through perceptions and the abilities of technologies to fulfil a purpose – to meet individual and social needs.

There are groups of people who are disadvantaged – or just different – in a whole variety of ways. Are they unworthy of being supported in terms of gaining digital access and benefit? Are they not to be included within our wider inclusion agenda? Many of our population who fall into this category do so as a matter of personal or social circumstances, rather than through choice.

Varied infrastructure requirements

young girl with laptop

Young people get online in a variety of ways.

For example, some of our population are highly mobile; they may be a traveller family, moving from one place to another often. Others might be highly non-mobile, but with a form of physical impairment or fear of outside places meaning that they move out of their locality very infrequently. So even focusing on addressing infrastructure issues to support all of these groups is problematic. Fixed services can work well for many, but not for all. A single one-off technological solution to support all of these people in gaining digital experience and enjoyment, and that will allow them to use these experiences for individual personal and professional needs, is highly unlikely to be successful.

Consider how some other countries are tackling these issues. In Switzerland, for example, citizens have a legal right to broadband access (as an element of universal service obligations). This is despite the fact that the country’s geography does not lend itself to a single infrastructure provision – providing broadband access to remote mountain huts and large urban areas can offer different forms of challenges and lead to different types of solutions (satellite through to cable).

Other barriers to participation

If we are to support digital participation widely, we need to know much more about those groups that are not currently engaging, to understand the reasons why, and to look at whether and how we might support more specific groups. I’ve looked at different ways that young people can be excluded to varying extents from learning – this could be in the region of 20% in the UK population. Our study of young people who are not in employment, education or training, showed that we are likely to need to think about digital participation in specific ways to support this widely heterogeneous group fully. We need to ask questions such as: How do we support and engage those with creative interests? How do we engage those with practical interests? How do we bring things of interest to their attention?

Let’s consider just a few other important questions relevant to certain groups:

  • Physical disabilities or deficiencies – Do we know whether the auditory material available for those with visual impairments is supporting digital participation effectively? Do we know whether text or signing for those with auditory impairments is appropriate and useful?
  • Physical presence – Do we know whether those who travel or those who are homeless are able to gain mobile broadband access, or what specific digital participation they might need?
  • Cognitive attributes – Do we know the extent to which those with low reading ages (across the entire age spectrum) are able to both access material and complete documents online? Do we know whether those with dyslexia would want to respond verbally online more?
  • Social features – Do we engage people widely enough, by providing sufficient online role models with whom they can empathise (a girl with Down’s Syndrome or a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, for example)?
  • Emotional features – Do we know to what extent those who are shy or reticent are encouraged to be involved and to engage with digital media?
  • Behavioural features – Do we know the extent, uses and outcomes of online opportunities to support those with different and distinctive behavioural issues?
  • Opportunity factors – To what extent do online systems provide alerts for those who have particular needs and interests, giving access to information that might help at crucial times?

Call for concern

If we provide a single focus on addressing infrastructure and providing digital material that meets the needs of those who use it currently, then we will continue to avoid supporting those who are not using it. Other member states in the EU are focusing on applications and developments that apply to social issues, and are starting to look at the more specific needs of different groups, such as immigrants or minorities. My call is that we look seriously at the reasons for their concerns… let’s think about people… and different people…

Don Passey is also part of Lancaster University’s Centre for Studies in Advanced Learning Technologies . His recent research interests include how technology can be used to engage young people at risk of learning exclusion and the ways young people who are outside the educational system use technology.