Digital exclusion – what is it and what can we do about it?

Digital Divide #4

Digital Divide #4, by Barry Dahl (CC BY 2.0)

On Monday night, the IFN614 class engaged in a thought-provoking and wide-ranging Twitter chat  on Information and digital literacy, which spanned many issues from digital exclusion to e-safety, to how much technological knowledge librarians should have.  The issue that resonated most with me, and which will be the focus of this post, was digital exclusion, and the risks it carries to individuals’ ability to participate in everyday life, as increasingly, services are moving online.

In answer to the first question of the evening “Why are information and digital literacy programs important?” I commented that:

More everyday and essential services are being moved online (Medicare, Centrelink, banking, looking for a new house)”.

This prompted a number of replies, including:

“@micheleas Wow, that is so true! Hadn’t even thought of that!” (Stephanie Harland)

“@micheleas so true! Lack of tech/ability to use it can mean being cut off from the outside world” (Katie Ferguson)

“@micheleas good point. It’s just essential” (Neil David McNaught)

“@micheleas So true! I often wonder how older people navigate essential services that seem nearly exclusively online” (Michelle Dare)

These replies highlight how access to technology and the skills to use technology is seen as essential in today’s society; pointing out the risk of being excluded from society, and also pointing out specific issues that some populations, e.g. older people, might have in accessing essential services if they are only offered online.  Kate Davis continued the conversation, specifically around government services moving online:

“Government services are moving online. What does that mean for people who aren’t technology literate?” (Kate Davis)

“@katiedavis they can’t really access those services” (Neil David McNaught)

“@katiedavis moving services online mean they are harder to access for ppl without access, or knowhow” (Michele Smith)

“@nlmcnght @katiedavis or it takes them forever to deal with things as they have to call or physically go to a govt branch” (Jasmine Darlington-R)

“@nlmcnght @katiedavis or they hope they can still access via older methods – or learn new tech to use those services” (Nura Firdawsi)

“@micheleas i feel like it’s a good way to further marginalise the already marginalised…” (Kate Davis)

“with governments movement, illiterate people will lose a lot of opportunities, employment for example.” (Ibtisam Al siyabi)

“Education and employment opportunities are online too. how do you apply for a job these days? online.” (Rebecca Mutch)

These responses highlighted the disadvantage and marginalisation faced by people who do not have technological skills.  Neelie Kroes, former Vice President of the European Commission, speaks persuasively about the importance of information technology skills, and  describes internet access as a utility that must be accessible to everyone, to prevent digital exclusion.  Ms Kroes describes the implications of digital exclusion as “exclusion from information, economic opportunity, social contact, health, education and government services”, and highlights that those most at risk of digital exclusion are often at risk of exclusion due to other factors, such as being elderly, less educated or poor.

Scott Ewing, a Senior Research Fellow at Swinburne University of Technology, writing for The Conversation in Feb 2016, discusses the digital divide in Australia, and reports on an ABS study examining the household use of information technology in Australia (2014-15)  which revealed that there are still a full 1.3 million households (14%) without internet access in Australia; and that you are more likely to have no internet access, and not be an internet user if you are from a low-income household, are less educated, unemployed, or over 55.  Jaeger, Thompson, Bertot, Subramaniam and Taylor (2014) in their book Digital Literacy and Digital Inclusion, also include people with a disability, and people in rural areas, as those who are likely to be digitally excluded.

Digital exclusion is a social justice issue. Everyone should be able to participate in, and reap the benefits of today’s information and technology rich society in every way; financially, socially, and educationally.  I think that libraries have a primary role in addressing this issue, are well-positioned to do it, and are in fact, already getting on with the job.  Jaeger et al, state that American public libraries are important providers of digital inclusion and literacy, providing physical, intellectual, and social access for members, and Australian libraries also provide these services.

During the twitter chat, there was a rich outpouring of ideas about the types of products, programs and services libraries could offer to support information and digital literacy, ensuring that programs were user-centred, and people had a reason to engage with them.  Many people discussed the need for programs to teach people how to use different kinds of technology; how to use applications such as the internet, email and social media.  e-safety emerged as an important issue to address in the provision of internet programs.  Targeted research and information literacy programs were also suggested. Others advocated for services such as free access to the internet and computers, and technology/device loans.

I am optimistic that with knowledge of the issue of digital exclusion, we, as future information professionals, will be motivated to implement appropriate programs, products and services, informed by user needs, to address the issue at a local level in our own communities and libraries.  However, Jaeger et al also point out that budget cuts and the possibility of library privatisation puts the provision of public library services at risk, so a broader advocacy of the need for digital literacy and digital inclusion for the benefit of all people is also required; through national and international library associations, human rights associations, the World Health Organisation, government and industry.

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