Two of the key agendas of the Welsh Assembly Government as set out in the Learning Country are to produce a highly skilled workforce imbued with the appetites and skills for lifelong learning on the one hand and to deliver a set of inclusive, flexible and value for money government services on the other. Both these goals depend on a high level of ICT skills widely dispersed within the population.
Effective use of ICT is needed for the information gathering essential for life long learning and self motivated re-skilling. And it’s a building block for inclusive, flexible delivery of government services. It is pointless social landlords equipping their sites with facilities to request repairs and pay bills on line if a large chunk of their client base lacks internet access. ICT skills and connectivity are important for social cohesion through boosting inclusivity and the ability to communicate – and sustainability by facilitating individuals to work from home instead of travelling. This can be critical to re-engaging disabled individuals into the workforce and it is important that the requirements and opportunities of connectivity are taken into account when social housing is being planned, built or refurbished.
At present 61% of the population of the UK as a whole have broadband access to the internet and can connect to better paid jobs, instant information, new forms of communication and social interaction, community infrastructures, government services, consumer power and convenience. But for a stable 39%, those benefits remain firmly out of reach. Digital exclusion affects those who could benefit from it most. Those who are socially excluded are 3 times more likely to be digitally excluded. So, those who are out of work, in poor health, live in social housing, live alone, or have a low level of qualification are being set at a further disadvantage by digital exclusion. People suffering from more than 3 of these criteria are defined as socially excluded by the Office of National Statistics. Three quarters of all socially excluded people are non users of the internet.
Three quarters of people counted as socially excluded are also digitally excluded. The scale of the problem washighlighted by BT in their report – Digital Divide in 2025. They estimated that some 23 million people would remain at risk of digital exclusion in 2025. The argument assumes that there will be no progress to standardised affordable technology, that the population will rise by 5 million, that the existing refuseniks will not engage and that a proportion of the population will become excluded through infirmity – 2 million people are unable to read Times Roman font on a screen.
This digital divide issue needs to be addressed if the goals of life long learning and improved service provision are to be achieved. Internet technology seems to have a much larger “laggard” group than is normal with most other technologies. According to classic product lifecycle analysis it’s usual to end up with a laggard group of about 16% of the population. The internet is unusual in that uptake seems to have got stuck at about 39% and hasn’t moved since 2003. This is in contrast to most other technologies which even in poor households have gone to completion.
The excluded group seem to have a variety of motivations for not engaging. For some its money (even though the evidence is that most of the excluded groups believe that the true cost of connection is about twice what it really is). People generally believe that a PC costs £800 and a connection costs £28.90 per month. The true figures are now more like £250 and £12. For others it’s techno fear and for some others it’s a complete disinterest. But there is evidence that this masks a failure to connect the available information on the internet with things that are immediately relevant to their own lives.
Information on getting jobs, on better health, on local services and on saving time dealing with the official interactions have been demonstrated to be of interest. Another benefit which is not well recognised is how it lets people keep easily in contact with remote relatives using email or VOIP (voice over IP). “Skype for Grannies” would effectively save money for some of these groups. The cost of a broadband connection is well below what they currently spend on phones – even in the bottom decile of the population.
There is good evidence that helping people to make these connections drives the desire to adopt use of the internet. The pilot projects that have been carried out have illustrated a number of interesting points.
- About 20% of the population seem to be motivated by the desire to create material – this seems to cut across all demographics.
- People learn best from people like them. The pilot work done by the London and Quadrant housing association in conjunction with Hairnet, together with the work done by the Citizens online project in Croydon shows clearly that working through local voluntary organisations using people with a similar background has the effect of substantially increasing penetration of internet use within the target population. This is discussed in more detail in the paper on the Voluntary Sector.
- Individuals who do go on-line show an increased uptake in learning. This is true at the school level where it has been claimed that an internet connection at home is worth 1.2 GCSEs