Implementing digital inclusion : technical & pedagogical barriers (IST)

Published on: 13/09/2010
Document

Intermediaries and digital inclusion: Technological and pedagogical barriers. Civil society organizations, libraries and other socio-cultural associations play an important role with regards to the implementation of digital inclusion policy. They often provide alternative ways of access to ICT via public computer spaces. However, during the past ten years digital exclusion has shifted from a lack of access towards inequalities at the level of access, motivation, usage and skills. Hence, the question arises to what extent government and civil society undertake actions that are in line with the current complexities and changes of today's digital divide? Do they still focus solely on ICT-access or has their focus changed towards the enhancement of digital skills and the provision of meaningful usage opportunities? What elements hampered this transition and prevented intermediaries to update their approach?   The literature review explains why merely providing access can no longer be considered a suitable solution to counter digital exclusion. Furthermore, it focuses on identifying what other aspects related to usage, motivation and skills should be taken into account. The empirical study
focuses on the actual practice of intermediaries related to digital inclusion in Flanders.  First, a quantitative inventory of nearly 400 public computer spaces and/or ICT-related training opportunities organized by civil society and government in Flanders was conducted. By way of an online questionnaire their modus operandi (target groups, number of visitors, number of available computers, focus of public computer space...), pedagogical approach (type of coaching, focus of training opportunities, type of learning materials, group size, focus on follow-up courses...) and sustainability (local embedding, number and type of partners, type of provided support,
financing mechanisms...) was mapped and analyzed.  Second, brainstorm sessions were organized with various representatives of these organizations in order to identify problems and barriers and reflect on possible policy interventions to reduce them..

Intermediaries and digital inclusion: Technological and pedagogical barriers.

Civil society organizations, libraries and other socio-cultural associations play an important role with regards to the implementation of digital inclusion policy. They often provide alternative ways of access to ICT via public computer spaces. However, during the past ten years digital exclusion has shifted from a lack of access towards inequalities at the level of access, motivation, usage and skills. Hence, the question arises to what extent government and civil society undertake actions that are in line with the current complexities and changes of today's digital divide? Do they still focus solely on ICT-access or has their focus changed towards the enhancement of digital skills and the provision of meaningful usage opportunities? What elements hampered this transition and prevented intermediaries to update their approach?

The literature review explains why merely providing access can no longer be considered a suitable solution to counter digital exclusion. Furthermore, it focuses on identifying what other aspects related to usage, motivation and skills should be taken into account. The empirical study focuses on the actual practice of intermediaries related to digital inclusion in Flanders.

First, a quantitative inventory of nearly 400 public computer spaces and/or ICT-related training opportunities organized by civil society and government in Flanders was conducted. By way of an online questionnaire their modus operandi (target groups, number of visitors, number of available computers, focus of public computer space...), pedagogical approach (type of coaching, focus of training opportunities, type of learning materials, group size, focus on follow-up courses...) and sustainability (local embedding, number and type of partners, type of provided support, financing mechanisms...) was mapped and analyzed.

Second, brainstorm sessions were organized with various representatives of these organizations in order to identify problems and barriers and reflect on possible policy interventions to reduce them.

Policy Context

It can be concluded that civil society, government and other socio-cultural associations have developed a valuable approach to counter digital exclusion of disadvantaged groups by embedding their actions in existing social structures and by using specific coaching and pedagogical approaches.

The vast majority of existing initiatives clearly act beyond the provision of access to computer and the Internet. They also foresee coaching and further digital inclusion by guiding participants to other ICT-related courses. In that way initiatives respond to the increasing complexity of the digital divide by focusing on access, motivation, usage and skills. From a policy perspective additional efforts are needed to ensure the sustainability and the future development of these initiatives. Policy intervention is highly needed at the level of "Train The Trainer" courses, technical maintenance and financing mechanisms.

Main results, benefits and impacts

The results show that nearly 48 % of the public computer spaces also provide training opportunities. Moreover, more than 90 % of the public computer spaces offer coaching to all visitors of the public computer space regardless whether they engage in training. The study reveals that organizations encounter two major problem areas, namely at the level of coaching and at the level of maintenance of the computer park.

With regards to coaching, the study shows that different problems occur. Professional coaches have the necessary pedagogical skills but are in most cases unaware of the real-life difficulties of impoverished groups. Also, most organizations do not have the financial means to work with professional coaches and therefore work with volunteers. When working with volunteers, availability becomes an issue as they often disengage. Though volunteers are closer to the target groups, they often lack the necessary pedagogical skills to incite these groups to learn. Often the employees of the organization itself, for example librarians, youth workers or social workers act as coaches.
However, they often have a negative attitude towards ICT and/or lack the necessary digital skills. This makes them less able to motivate and incite others to use ICT and improve their digital skills.

Altogether, the study reveals that all coaches are in need of additional "Train The Trainer" courses. However, none of the existing organizations is able to provide such courses at a large scale. They lack the necessary manpower and financial means. The rapid development of the Internet adds another barrier.

How can coaches keep themselves up-to-date with the continuous submergence of new(er) applications and the progressive evolution of the Internet? Therefore, Flemish organizations call for the foundation of an umbrella organization to implement these "Train The Trainer" courses and at the same time enhance the exchange of knowledge, best practices and learning materials. From a policy perspective, organizations state that it is absolutely necessary to integrate the use of ICT into the existing curricula of librarians, social workers or youth workers, as they are most likely to function as an intermediary for digital inclusion policy afterwards. 

With regards to the maintenance of the computer park several problems occur. At a purely technical level questions arise about where and by whom damaged hardware materials can be fixed at low cost. As far as software is concerned,  the continuous need to upgrade, update or renew software and operating systems causes difficulties. Here, licensing and the transferability of licenses across different computers is an issue. The same applies to the protection against viruses and spam. Organizations do not have the necessary in-house skills to maintain their computer park up-to-date or to secure it properly, nor do they have the financial means to hire professional IT-people. In order to obtain some degree of control and security downloading software, music, games or other applications is forbidden in 50 % of the public computer spaces.

As a solution, Flemish organizations call for the foundation of an umbrella organization in order to organize a mobile and online helpdesk. The entire renewal of the computer park is an additional issue. Computers in public computer spaces should be in line with the most recent system requirements so as to enable the use of all kinds of Internet applications. This means that computer parks need to be replaced in a rather short-term period of two to three years. Most organizations depend on project-based funding and have no structural means. Hence, renewing their computer park becomes a struggle.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Lessons learnt

It can be concluded that civil society, government and other socio-cultural associations have developed a valuable approach to counter the digital exclusion of disadvantaged groups by embedding their actions in existing social structures and by using specific coaching and pedagogical approaches. The vast majority of existing initiatives clearly act beyond the provision of access to computer and the Internet. They also foresee in coaching and further digital inclusion by guiding participants to other ICT-related courses. In that way initiatives respond to the increasing complexity of the digital divide by focusing on access, motivation, usage and skills.

From a policy perspective additional efforts are needed to ensure the sustainability and the future development of these initiatives. Policy intervention is highly needed at the level of "Train The Trainer" courses, technical maintenance and financing mechanisms

Scope: Regional (sub-national)