The digital revolution leaving millions behind
The pandemic has unmasked a stark digital divide that excludes too many from online life – so how can we fix it?
The global digital revolution was well underway before 2020, but when COVID-19 turned life upside-down a little over a year ago, the internet suddenly became fundamental to the everyday existence of people around the world. As everything from family gatherings to GP appointments – not to mention work, school and exercise – moved online, the internet became a lifeline for millions.
While many of us may have found ourselves wondering what it would be like to survive a pandemic without access to the internet, that hypothetical question was a painful reality for others. In fact, the same digital tools that have allowed so many to continue learning, working and socialising during lockdown are the very reason some people are more isolated than ever.
Figures included in the new On Digital Inequalities report, released by The University of Manchester’s policy engagement unit, Policy@Manchester, show that 3.8 million people in the UK – around 7% of the population – have never used the internet, with 9 million people unable to get online without help from someone else.
In England, the digital divide is a geographical one; 53% of people in the North East and 41% of those in the North West don’t use the internet, or use it in a limited way, compared to 35% of people in the South East. And unsurprisingly, wealth also plays a part in this digital inequality, with half of all households that earn between £6,000 and £10,000 not having any access to the internet.
As the pandemic accelerated the UK’s digital dependency, the gap between the internet “haves” and “have-nots” widened at a faster rate than ever before – and it shows no signs of slowing now. So what can be done to ensure we’re building a digital future that’s both fair and inclusive?
As a former teacher, I know how important digital access and skills are to children’s education and development, and I want to see the Government place more of an emphasis on making sure nobody is left behind in this digital revolution.
Academics at The University of Manchester believe education is key. The On Digital Inequalities report argues for teachers to be better trained, not only to confidently use and teach digital skills, but also to harness digital technology as a tool that can reduce inequalities between students. Predicting that hybrid learning may need to continue for some time, the report also asks the government to support schools to develop and provide “blended” education programmes that mix in-person and remote learning.
Siobhain McDonagh MP, who introduced the Internet Access (Children Eligible for Free School Meals) Bill, called the policy recommendations an opportunity for the Government to “put their levelling up rhetoric into practice”, adding: “I believe that no child’s education should be dependent on their internet connection and so I am calling on the Government to ensure that all children entitled to free school meals to have internet access and an adequate device at home.”
Selaine Saxby MP, Chair of the APPG on Broadband and Digital Communication, echoed this sentiment, commenting: “As a former teacher, I know how important digital access and skills are to children’s education and development, and I want to see the Government place more of an emphasis on making sure nobody is left behind in this digital revolution.”
Higher education providers also have work to do, with one On Digital Inequalities contributor encouraging more digital practice-based assessments to reduce inequality of educational outcomes and bolster employability across the board. The report highlights that integrating a more practical approach into higher education assessment has the added benefit of counteracting the rising use of essay mills and the threat they pose to assessment integrity.
Arguing that the current digital skills framework doesn’t do enough to support a digitally competent workforce, another author recommends that government at all levels expands on the existing categories of “essential digital skills” for life and work, to include capabilities in areas such as configuring and interacting with software. Adding these skills to the framework and then adopting a more targeted digital approach to skills development – in line with countries like Singapore and Finland – would better equip UK workers across most industries for the future workplace.
Finally, the report asks for the introduction of mass digital literacy campaigns, designed to reach the millions of people who can’t use the internet by targeting those most vulnerable to the effects of digital inequality. In the meantime, it says services must ensure alternative methods of communication are available to individuals who cannot get online, and asks policymakers to explore other ways of connecting people remotely.
Julie Elliott MP, Chair of the Digital Skills APPG, welcomed the report, saying of the digital divide: “It affects all ages for different reasons, but it affects those on the lowest incomes the most – young people without sufficient devices and connections lost out on their education in lockdown, and those who did not have adequate digital skills to access the online world found themselves cut off from their loved ones.”
The internet already played a huge role in modern life before the pandemic and though we may feel less reliant on video calls and online grocery orders after restrictions are eased, we will always need digital skills and tools to flourish in the brave new digital world. Every aspect of UK life is well and truly online – now it’s time to make sure everyone has access.
You can read the University of Manchester's full report On Digital Inequalities here.