The reliance on digital technology has been intense since the beginning of the pandemic, with an acceleration in capability of technologies to ensure the continuity of public and social practices by bridging physical distance. Digital transformation has created opportunities and benefits which had not been thought of and embraced before. The application of digital technologies by public and private stakeholders enabled them to adapt to the new reality. For example, academic institutions have moved their learning, recruiting, assessment, interaction and support services to the virtual space.
The accelerated expansion of digital technologies in many spheres of life has increased concerns over a widening digital gap. Recent statistics show that there are over 16 million people in the UK who are digitally excluded. Against the backdrop of the growing integration of digital technologies in our lives, the March Sphere Digital Thursday webinar was organised to discuss how digital poverty is manifested and what it means to be digitally excluded. Professor Alastair Irons from the University of Sunderland shared insights about digital poverty in the education sphere. The talk facilitated a wider discussion about the roots of unequal digital opportunities, the impacts that it has and the steps that are important in tackling digital poverty.
What is Digital Poverty?
Digital poverty is more than just a lack of access to technologies. It is the result of the shortage and constraints in four areas: relating to technology; bandwidth; environment; and skills. Lack of access to hardware, software and the Internet is inconsistent across households and regions. For example, Wales, the East Midlands and North East of England are the regions with the lowest number of internet users in the UK.
Throughout the pandemic the severity of device and bandwidth poverty has been mounting, as the access to public services and libraries has been restricted. Inadequate environmental conditions, such as a lack of access to quiet spaces, contribute to digital poverty by restricting the utilisation of technologies. Digital skills that are essential for life and work refer to the skills that are needed to access, use and manage information for transactions, problem-solving and communication purposes.
Around 80% of jobs require some type of digital skills. However, according to Digital Nation UK statistics, almost 9 million people in the country struggle to use the Internet without help, while around 7million people do not have access to the Internet at home. A Lloyds Bank survey shows that the prospects are more lamentable still, estimating that over 17 million people don’t have the digital skills for work, out of whom 13 million have the digital skills for life but not for work. With the closure of public facilities and libraries, the skills gap is getting deeper.
Impacts of Digital Poverty
Digital poverty can result in lost opportunities in education, the job market, healthcare and other spheres of life. For example, after over a year since online learning was introduced, the insight into student engagement data has made it possible to conclude that a new learning approach has been to the detriment of some proportion of students. As per the observations of Professor Irons, such digitally excluded students have particular engagement patterns, such as dropping out in the middle of a course or being inactive in the second half of a month. Such behaviour is rooted in them running out of mobile data on devices, infrastructural issues (broadband blindspots) and being in an environment not conducive to studying. When it comes to employment opportunities, considering the current data on the digital skills gap, more than 13% of the population will find it challenging to get employed. Digital equality is also crucial for healthcare. Online support, digital health tools and services help in achieving wellbeing, disease prevention, use of emergency care and the ability to self-care. The struggles that digital poverty brings are generalisable beyond the mentioned spheres. Overall, digital inequality prevents people from fully participating in society and receiving economic, legal and social opportunities.
Understanding Digital Poverty
To ensure that with the massive acceleration of digital transformation a larger proportion of the population has not lagged behind, it is important to identify the problems in the existing social, economic and technical systems leading to the digital divide. There is a need to improve the knowledge on the front of digital literacy, contributors to digital poverty and the population groups experiencing it.
- Firstly, it is important to raise awareness among the population about the existence of digital poverty and the importance of digital connectivity. For example, in the education sector, awareness of the possible impact of remote learning on student performance is manifested in the No-detriment policy. This ensures that the progress of all students is assessed by taking into consideration the unfavourable circumstances that they are in due to the pandemic (e.g. access to digital resources). While a part of society is not digitally connected due to reasons beyond their control, some people are not motivated to integrate into a digital society.
- Secondly, to understand the problems and tailor solutions, one should consider data critically, because the reasons for digital exclusion can be complex and embedded in a socio-political system.
- Thirdly, it is important to ensure people’s maturity in terms of accepting the problem, which would help prevent prejudice against digitally disadvantaged layers of society. Without fear of being mistreated and stigmatised, people can openly discuss their challenges and help develop measures to address them.
Tackling Digital Poverty
Digital poverty should be tackled from technological, economic and social perspectives. From a technological perspective, initiatives should be undertaken to increase the supply of devices, Wifi connections and other resources. For example: Vodafone has distributed free SIM cards; a social housing company in the North East England area has provided free Wifi; London Grid got various websites whitelisted by network operators so that usage would not consume data allowances.
While switching from offline to digital channels and resources, it is essential to keep social diversity in mind, so design and language will accommodate different social groups and people with disabilities. From an economic perspective, the alleviation of digital poverty requires massive investment. For example, the UK Infrastructure Bank is expected to support projects directed at the development of digital infrastructure. Options and ways forward could also include a digital tax to fund Universal Digital Connection (like Universal Credit) and a Universal Basic Hardware allowance. From the social perspective, digital poverty is about the inability, for a wide variety of reasons, to interact fully with the digital world. Therefore, the lack of technological workplace skills should be addressed by understanding social circumstances.
- COVID-19 is increasing digital inequality due to the displacement of human connectivity with online learning, working and interaction.
- Digital Poverty is laid bare by four inequalities – device poverty, bandwidth poverty, environment poverty, digital skills poverty.
- Digital exclusion has a detrimental effect on learning outcomes and could challenge students’ employment in the future
- Understanding the roots of digital exclusion and raising awareness of the problem are the first steps for tackling inequality.
- Technological, economic and social measures are needed to bridge the digital gap.