Should the industry be worried about digital disenfranchisement?

Digital disenfranchisement is holding back the future of creativity as not all young people have access to the same opportunities, writes Gina Lovett.

When Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web in 1989, he envisioned it as an agent of universal empowerment. 25 years on, ‘digital’ has made the world more public, more social, more global and more entrepreneurial – but not for everyone.Digital disenfranchisement today is denoted by even deeper social and economic exclusion – exclusion from the opportunities to build the social and cultural capital that can be transformative at a time when digital is ever more inherent in education achievement and career progression. Worryingly, according to national digital inclusion campaign Go On UK, around 16 million people in the UK aged 15 and over still don’t have basic online skills, such as browsing the internet and emailing, yet 90 per cent of all jobs will require information and communication technology (ICT) skills by 2015.This divide is particularly marked for young people. For instance, while national curriculum changes in September will place more emphasis on digital skills such as 3D printing, robotics, computer coding and algorithms, digital disenfranchisement means there is not the same emphasis on ensuring young people have the access they need to the tools, software and hardware required.Unrealised potentialExecutive committee member of the British Interactive Media Association (Bima) and CEO of digital agency Amaze, Natalie Gross, spends much of her time lobbying on digital disenfranchisement and the digital skills gap.She says: “Fundamentally [digital] presents a great opportunity for the UK to grow its labour force as one of the most competitive in the world, but it’s dependent on understanding the skills required to take advantage of the characteristics of our digital world, and the ability to equip young people with the necessary skills.”There are many reasons for deepening disenfranchisement. While tech development continues apace, those who are disadvantaged often cannot afford the higher spec systems or devices needed to keep up. While more financially accessible devices like smartphones offer mobile internet, the device is often geared towards entertainment and commerce, and less towards education and empowerment. Often for impoverished sections of society, digital is about gaming and chat, with its full potential not realised. This online segregation perpetuates divisions in the physical world and vice versa. For many digital inclusion campaigners, growing social inequality across the UK is a major factor in deepening digital disenfranchisement. Thinktank The Equality Trust cites impacted health, wellbeing and crime as indicators of social and economic inequality. For digital inclusion campaigners, digital disenfranchisement is just another aspect of this inequality. It’s a proxy for poverty.Despite growth in home access to the internet,more than 500,000 of the most disadvantaged schoolchildren in the UK – eight per cent – still cannot go online at home, limiting their digital skills, education opportunities and career progression.According to Helen Milner, CEO of the Tinder Foundation, which runs a national network of online centres to help people improve their computer and internet skills, this has a huge impact on a child’s academic achievement, career progression and general prospects in life.Milner says: “They miss out on vital homework,independent study, the chance to be engaged with friends, or [find] critical information and reference materials.” Valerie Thompson, CEO of the E-Learning Foundation, an organisation that supports schoolsin ICT strategy and implementation, points to how children from low-income families perform significantly worse at school than better-off children.“Young people score a grade point lower if they have no internet access at home. That can mean the difference between a C and D – the difference between passing and failing,” she says.While the attainment gap for 16-year-olds – the difference between those on free school meals and those not achieving grades A to C in GCSEs – is thought to be around 26 per cent, Thompson believes it is nearer 50 per cent. Official figures only measure those families earning less than £16,000, and don’t take into account those who are struggling but are not receiving benefits. Home situations where there is one device shared between many children can also affect attainment.“For disadvantaged young people, digital is yet another reason why you’re not as good as the other kids, and fall behind the progress you should be making. The consequences are huge. Just think of the role of technology in employment and the IT and digital content sectors. There are a very tiny percentage of jobs without it,” adds Thompson. Beyond programmingGross believes that the government is making a mistake by focusing education reform on programming skills. She says: “This is a great thing, but it’s not the only thing. Cognitive skills, communication skills,understanding media and having an international edge to the curriculum are all contributory to equipping young people with the requisite skills for success.This will require a significant rethink of the way the curriculum is designed to support these seemingly‘softer’ elements.”Thompson, too, feels more needs to be done in education – in particular there is a need for an overarching policy on how technology should be taught, implemented and used to facilitate learning. She says the government’s abolition of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency in 2010 meant the UK lost its lead in the promotion and integration of ICT in education.She adds: “The education system now is at sixes and sevens as to where it stands in relation to technology. Some schools allow teachers to opt out of the digital world.“There’s absolutely no policy now on the use of technology in schools; you have 25,000 schools,25,000 heads and 25,000 different strategies. Progress is slowing and it’s not giving school leavers the digital backing they need.”Milner also points to the way that the internet has developed commercially, and how the simplification of information does little to foster the inquiry and questioning skills that are vital to getting on. “Commercial organisations have made everything simple, but we have to be cautious against fostering a generation of passive consumers. We want active inquirers. Education is about inquiry – asking questions and working out what it is you want to do,”says Milner.Digital strategist and consultant Tiffany St James terms this “learning to learn”. “Part of the movement to get kids coding should be getting them more active so they don’t just sit back and take what they’re given,” she says.Equipping young people with the skills needed for the future is also about investing in careers education. This means understanding the digital industry as part of the continuum with the creative sectors, adds St James. “Not everyone is going to be a programmer,”she says.Facilitating creativityGross also argues for a need to overhaul the way careers advice is delivered to young people. “It came to my attention recently that there is very limited careers advice provided to state schools,” she says. “Privately funded schools are investing far more in careers advice to their pupils.“Lack of access to such services will feed digital disenfranchisement as the divide between private education and sustained personal careers advice will contrast sharply with the opportunities afforded to young people in state schools.“This is ironic, as the internet has presented the opportunities for people to succeed from all walks of life, but the education system is failing to equip people from all walks of life to take advantage.”Digital inclusion champions emphasise that digital can only create real, lasting social change when young people are equipped not only with the access and facilities, but also with the confidence, motivation,curiosity and education needed to avail of digital’s full potential.Understanding that technology is the facilitator of creativity and learning, and not the end goal in itself, is key. For Berners-Lee, success will be measured by how well children’s creativity is fostered; whether future scientists have the tools to cure diseases; whether people can distinguish reliable information from propaganda or commercial chaff; and whether the next generation will build systems that support democracy and promote accountable debate.This feature was first published in The Drum’s 25 June issue, guest-edited by Nigel Vaz. The magazine is available for purchase in The Drum store, or for subscribers to download here.Illustrations by Ben O'Brien

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