Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 17 July 2009   Tuesday, July 28, 2009

ISSN 1748-3603

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Digital Britain sees digital inclusion emerging from the chrysalis
Digital Britain: Carter's charter for luvvies & lawyers
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Digital Britain sees digital inclusion emerging from the chrysalis
by Helen Milner

It is frustrating to see Digital Britain boiled down in the media to inaccurate reporting of the £6 tax on landlines, or alternatively a spirited defence of the licence fee (largely from the BBC). 
 
I found myself on both Radio 5 Live and Radio 4’s You and Yours programme post Digital Britain, rather pushed into the position of defending the ‘landline levy’ in two quite different phone-in debates. In reality, I’m not sure I think this is the best way to raise funds, and my concern is the people at a real disadvantage – social or digital – for whom a landline is a lifeline. On the other hand I do accept that if faster broadband is a thing to be desired, it must also be paid for. 
 
What was really interesting here, however, was the difference a week makes in caller attitudes. The day after Digital Britain I was heartened to hear at least half the callers happy to pay their 50p a month for a better connected Britain. A week later, following the ‘stealth tax’ media frenzy, every caller wanted a better service, but none wanted to be taxed for it. Digital might be considered by some to be the impending death of traditional media, but with media figuring so large in the development of Britain’s collective public opinion, the digital elite would do well to foster traditional media relations. 
 
Social conscience
 
These reflections aside, one call which particularly struck me came into Radio 5 Live from the lovely Imran in Wakefield. He pledged to go out and get a landline just so he could pay tax on it and help others get online. Whilst (despite my best efforts) this didn’t remain a focus of the following conversation, it’s the kind of social conscience I admire, and actually the kind of social conscience I saw glimpses of in Digital Britain itself. 
 
Digital participation – digital inclusion by any other name – was cited by Ben Bradshaw in the Commons as the second big theme of Digital Britain’s big day. That’s considerable progress for an emerging policy area, which really spread its wings for the very first time in mainstream politics. Digital inclusion is not yet, however, flying high. I’d say we’re still waiting for our wings to dry. 
 
You see, British landlines x 50p a month is not the sum which most concerns me in the report. I’m more interested in plans to spend £200m a year on basic broadband speeds for the 1.5 million households who don’t have good internet access, versus a mere £12m – over three years – on the 15 million people who don’t have the motivation, skills or opportunity to use technology at all. Something doesn’t seem to add up. 
 
Very generously, only around 3 million people are affected by poor Internet access and speeds at home. Taking them away from the 15 million ‘excluded’, that leaves a good 12 million with good broadband pumping down their streets who are nevertheless left out in the non-digital cold. Our research shows that 55% of those left offline want to use the Internet but have specific barriers - money, time, knowledge, understanding, while the remaining 45% reject it out of hand as something that’s not necessary and not for them[1].  
 
People vs pipes 
Connecting the 55% and engaging the 45% is key to this agenda. People are the real heart of Britain – digital or otherwise.  It’s their use of technology which will drive the country out of recession and into global competition. Having one in four people excluded from the digital world will hold us back from that goal; engaging them will propel us forwards. We need to get them – and the media they listen to – on board the digital boat. 
 
I found Digital Britain to be very much a case of two steps forward and one step back for digital inclusion. We’ve gained a Champion, but lost a Minister; gained considerable recognition but lost out on effective resource (disappointing but salvageable). 
 
With digital inclusion still in something of a post-reshuffle departmental limbo, the main hope was offered by the appointment of Martha Lane Fox as its Champion. I’m excited to be part of the Taskforce supporting her, because she’s got a real interest in this area, real empathy, great connections and great energy. Martha is very much prepared to roll up her sleeves and do for digital inclusion, and in Guardian Technology (GT) pledged more action instead of more rhetoric. As GT also pointed out, she’s quite ready to bang on Ministerial desks to achieve it. 
 
I think it obvious from Digital Britain that there’s still considerable drum banging to be done here. Digital inclusion has emerged from its chrysalis, but it is still not flashy enough to attract much attention, and there is still much confusion about what ‘exclusion’ actually means. Less than half of MPs think digital inclusion is a key factor in helping the country recover from recession. A significant proportion also question whether digital inclusion has a role to play in social inclusion, with 40% reporting they didn’t see it as having a part in bridging class divides. 
 
Building the evidence 
From my point of view the evidence is clear, and it’s the link between social and digital inclusion which remains most concerning and most urgent. Those already at a disadvantage are up to seven times more likely to be digitally excluded. At UK online centres we’ve found internet users’ confidence in their ability to find work outstrips non-users by 25%, and that they’re more likely to rate their general confidence and quality of life higher. They also find it easier to plan travel and organise social gatherings, and feel much better informed about current affairs. 
 
Having the access, motivation and skills to take advantage of technology can quite clearly improve lives, job prospects and work performance, access to information and more general social capital. It’s that capacity which needs to be built alongside the high-speed infrastructures and clever content, and its skills not fibres which will need investment. Indeed, another ray of burgeoning hope - somewhat eclipsed by Digital Britain itself - was what I consider to be a cornerstone of digital inclusion’s future. The new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) also launched Estelle Morris’ review into digital life skills, which backed up the fledgling Learning Revolution White Paper and put informal ICT learning at its core. It could be here that we see the missing digital inclusion resource reimbursed, or reincarnated, depending on how you look at it.
 
A brave new world for digital inclusion 
Despite monetary and maths worries, there is clearly much in recent policy news to welcome and to build on. As high priestess of all glasses half full, I’m choosing to see Digital Britain as a brave start in addressing some very complex issues, and bringing together the social, economic and digital under one BISy roof.
 
I actually trust Lord Carter’s vision. There is no doubt there remains considerable work to be done to move Digital Britain from paper to practice, to balance the books and to co-ordinate the consortia of new agencies and old friends, but I for one am a believer. I’m therefore genuinely saddened we’ll be losing Carter’s leadership, and I’m looking to him for a smooth handover of ideas to his team, his boss, and his successor. 
 
This is a new era for digital inclusion, and I’m looking forward to working with Martha Lane Fox, Estelle Morris, the Digital Britain team, and partners like Ofcom, the BBC and Channel 4 to make sure technology really is opened up to all. There’s definitely light at the end of the policy tunnel, and I for one plan to keep fluttering gently but persistently around it. 
 
Helen Milner
hmilner@ufi.com 
Managing Director
UK online centres (For more information please visit www.ukonlinecentres.co.uk or email ukonlinecentres@ufi.com)


[1] Does the internet improve lives?  Freshminds and UK online centres, April 2009. 
www.ukonlinecentres.com/corporate/images/stories/downloads/
does_the_internet_improve_lives.pdf

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