Five Essays over Five Days at a Digital Poverty Summit

I’m currently writing an evidence review on digital poverty for the Digital Poverty Alliance, a new charitable organisation focused on connecting and focussing the digital poverty agenda in the UK. During this time, the Digital Poverty Alliance also asked me to attend, observe, and write a summary for each day of a digital poverty summit it had supported alongside several All-Party Parliamentary Groups related to digital issues. I’m reposting those essays here. They’re all available on the Digital Poverty Alliance blog.

Day 1: Digital Capability and Understanding – Digital Skills in the Workplace and the Future of Work

The future of work is digital, and the UK has some catching up to do if it aspires to a digitally capable workforce fit to meet that future. 

This was the predominant message from the first installment of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit, hosted yesterday by the APPG for Digital Skills. Invited contributors included representatives from TechUK, FutureDotNow, Google, Harvey Nash Group, BT, City & Guilds, Community Trade Union, and Prospect. 

Despite encouraging figures indicating that there are 5.6 million more people with foundational digital skills as a result of upskilling during the pandemic, Lloyds Bank reports that 11.8 million (36%) of the workforce still lack Essential Digital Skills for Work. Thinking ahead, the digital workplace is changing more rapidly than ever before, rendering digital skills a constantly moving target. By some estimates (published by the Confederation of British Industry and McKinsey), 90 percent of the UK workforce will need to reskill by 2030. 

Several recommendations surfaced at the roundtable to address where there are important gaps:

  • Evidence

We need to understand more fully what working life looks like for adults in the UK today, as well as understanding the link between digital skills and all aspects of life (e.g. health, recidivism, and of course productivity), both on a personal and societal level. Questions were raised around the role of Government’s existing significant investment in the What Works Network to generate evidence-based insights about digital across sectors to enable more holistic policy social impact.

  • Education

The pathways between education and work are not adequately preparing young people for a digital workplace. Formal education needs a stronger emphasis on digital skills across the whole curriculum, not just IT, informed by the needs of the employment market; and skills training needs to be available for the many people who do not pursue university education, including on-the-job training for both younger and older employees.

  • Lifelong inclusion

People constantly need new skills to be able to engage with a changing digital world. One of the places where people have the highest exposure to digital skills is in the workplace, on the job. When people fall out of employment or retire, their skills can deteriorate, so there needs to be provision for free, lifelong learning at different life stages and circumstances.

  • Prioritisation from the top

Digital skills delivery and digital skills policy is often fragmented across different sectors and at different levels (from the community to the national level). Digital capability needs to be a clear strategic national priority, communicated across government from the highest levels. As recommended by the House of Lords Covid-19 Select Committee, this should be led by the Cabinet Office and supported by respective departments, such as the Department for Education and HM Treasury to realise the benefits to UK PLC as well as for social and economic inclusion.

  • Signposting

Several speakers stated that the problem in delivering digital skills is not supply but demand. A range of digital skills training programmes exist — Learn My Way, the Lloyds AcademyGoogle GarageiDEA, and the new skills boot camps were all mentioned — and one-to-one help exists in Online Centres across the country. But people often do not know where to go for help. There needs to be more cross-sector signposting of available skills resources and training for people at the first point of contact, when they need it, and follow through to make sure they can access them. The Government has a key role to play here, as it manages many of the most important channels to the most vulnerable people, across health, education and housing, for example. (Learn more about how the Digital Poverty Alliance Community Board aims to support this.) 

  • Motivation and skills go hand-in-hand

Both capability and motivation are determinants of digital poverty, and they are very closely linked. As Liz Williams from FutureDotNow put it, “If the pandemic hasn’t motivated people, what’s it going to take?” Several speakers highlighted how a lack of exposure, confusion regarding the language we use to talk about digital skills and the digital world, and/or a lack of confidence can be de-motivating for people in acquiring digital skills. We need to tackle motivation alongside skills from education to employment and beyond.

Although it is impossible to cover the full range of issues relevant to digital skills in the workplace in just one roundtable discussion, there were some important themes missing from the conversation.

  • Locating responsibility for digital skills

Discussions of digital skills in the workplace tend to take the expectations of employers and industry as the default perspective. The question therefore often starts from the same premise. What do employers need? What does the economy need? 

Of course, this is an important perspective because people do need skills that are required in the job market. However, some roundtable participants acknowledged the risk of this default point-of-view: it ignores users’ (people’s) experiences. And in doing so, it individualises the ‘problem’ of digital skills — situating the responsibility for digital skills on the individual rather than placing an equal burden on the system. What is the responsibility of the job market, or even the designers and developers of technologies and digital systems themselves? When digital platforms and technologies are not built to be user-friendly for marginalised users (such as disabled people, people who speak English as a second language, people who have left education, or lack textual literacy), the experience of being online can be disheartening and de-motivating, if not discriminatory.

In research that colleagues and I conducted in public libraries, we found that people face many simple digital barriers in accessing jobs that otherwise require minimal digital skills. For example, the proliferation of online-only job applications for low-paid, hourly work blocks many digitally excluded people from even applying,  and it may also be de-motivating for people to consider acquiring any further digital skills. 

Therefore, additional important questions should include: whose responsibility are digital skills and literacy, and how can the job market be made less alienating for people experiencing digital exclusion? This is a shared responsibility across Government, business, and the tech sector.

  • Critical and abstract thinking skills

In our increasingly complex digital world, many of the digital skills needed to thrive not only in the workplace but in everyday life are not technical skills; they are critical thinking and abstract problem solving skills. And they diverge in important ways from the problem solving skills outlined in the Essential Digital Skills framework. 

Ofcom has identified some of these issues, reporting that people are increasingly unlikely to validate online information sources, have limited understanding of the ways companies collect and use personal data, and fail to accurately identify paid-for online advertising. The Me and My Big Data project found that many people in the UK lack data literacy and feel disempowered in the way their data is extracted and used. And in my own research, I have found that digitally excluded users often struggle most with constructing an abstract set of steps in their mind to get to a digital end-goal. Although they may have basic competencies, like logging into Wifi, this abstract thinking is a key digital barrier.

Therefore, other important questions should be: how can we cultivate both technical and critical thinking skills among even the most basic digital technology users? Can/should the digital world be designed to require less abstract thinking in the interest of becoming more inclusive?

  • Public participation

Both of these themes point to the need for greater public participation in the design of the digital workplace, digital technologies and systems, and digital skills learning programmes. There is a notable lack of lived experience perspectives — the views of ordinary people experiencing compound forms of inequality — in high level conversations about digital skills.Tackling the motivation side of the capability equation will involve not only identifying what skills people need, but crucially what skills they want. We need diverse voices in the room from, for instance, the disabled community, in order to meet people’s needs first.

The recommendations from the roundtables will inform a forthcoming Digital Poverty Evidence Review i2022 for the Digital Poverty Alliance, in which I will explore these further themes in greater depth, drawing on evidence from academia, industry, Government and the third sector. Read the interim report here.

If you have a single suggestion about what Government could do that would make a difference in the area of digital capability, e-mail:

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG for Digital Skills, in collaboration with the APPG Data Poverty, APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.

Day 2: Data Poverty

If there is one digital exclusion issue that has been unprecedentedly spotlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is data poverty. And now that the light has been shed, there will be no looking away.

Data poverty was the topic of the second day of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit hosted by a cross-party coalition of All-Party Parliamentary Groups and MPs and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance. The relatively new APPG on Data Poverty, which hosted yesterday’s roundtable, is a direct response to the urgent realisation, as one speaker put it, that “the digital divide comes with exclusion from society more generally.” 

Last year’s national lockdowns saw schools, workplaces, and public spaces close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in a sharp disruption to everyday rhythms that suddenly revealed how many people were without the basic connectivity needed to continue life, let alone level up — online. According to Citizen’s Advice, 2.5 million people have fallen behind on broadband bills during the pandemic. Ofcom reports that approximately 9 percent of households with children lacked access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet. Around 17 percent did not have consistent access to a suitable device for their online home-learning, which increased to 27 percent of children from households classed as most financially vulnerable. The recent Nominet Digital Youth Index finds that a third of young people do not have broadband at home. Even among those with home broadband, 13 percent say their connection is not good enough for everyday tasks and 52 percent say there are things they can’t do online due to poor connectivity. A deluge of media coverage and personal stories powerfully illustrated how many British families have faced impossible choices between necessities during the pandemic: “pay the wifi or feed the children”. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty articulated (in 2019), in a pervasively digital world, the digital divide is a question of basic human rights.

But the roundtable speakers, who represented organisations including The Good Things Foundation, Jisc, BT, Glide, Vodafone, and Nominet, all said that this was a problem well known to them before the pandemic. The cost and accessibility of connectivity and devices is a determinant of digital poverty. According to Lloyds Bank, nearly a third of those offline said that cheaper costs would encourage them to use the internet. Ofcom finds that 10 percent of internet users go online with a smartphone only, rising to 18 percent among those in socio-economic group DE. These issues are closely linked; when people do not have or cannot afford a home broadband connection, and they rely on mobile internet instead, they are paying for more expensive data

The entangled nature of data poverty (how much is about access? affordability? devices?) makes it difficult to define. And the definition often hinges on what a minimally acceptable standard would look like. The Good Things Foundation says that means data that is cheap, handy (easy to access), enough (in terms of speed and quantity), safe (to ensure privacy and protect users from harms), suitable (appropriate for an individual’s life circumstances). Nesta identifies data poverty as an inability to engage fully in the online world due to barriers including low income, not being able to get a data contract, lack of privacy, and local infrastructure. 

But the roundtable discussion demonstrated that precise definitions are less important than understanding the vectors of the problem. Data poverty — like poverty more broadly — is a product and producer of both resource and social exclusion. It is contextual, embedded in individual circumstances. And it is relative, meaning that the benchmark of exclusion changes as the nature of digital technology changes. 

Uniting around the urgency of the issue is the imperative, as captured in the key takeaways from the session:

  • Government must take a leadership role

Eradicating digital poverty cannot be achieved in isolation, and it cannot be accomplished in siloes. Government needs to lead national efforts to tackle data poverty. Despite the rapid rollout of many innovative schemes to fill an emergency gap during the pandemic (see the next point), many speakers said that people often do not know about the schemes that are available. In part, this is due to the piecemeal and fragmented array of partnerships and programmes, which are necessarily led by industry and the third sector. When there is market failure, as there is in this case, the Government must step in. The other part is the user journey, with attendees noting that where there are low cost offers, these are often too complex or hard to find for the people they aim to support. This is reflected in low take-up numbers. 

One speaker remarked, “Sometimes it feels like the Government is just standing back and saying, ‘oh, thank you very much.’” Data poverty impacts society and citizenship, yet it is non-governmental sectors that are having to step in and bridge the gaps — out of sheer public need. Government can do more, and there are many people and organisations who want to help.

Some recommendations included zero-rating essential services and implementing a universal service levy on companies that reap the greatest reward for digital engagement, many of which have saved billions in cost due to digital transformation, which has not in turn been returned to their customers. The Government has saved, too, and these windfalls should be re-invested in digital equity and inclusion. Another recommendation is to impose a social tariff on all operators — an initiative BT has already undertaken. As community members of the Digital Poverty Alliance pointed out, at the very least the Government and big business can signpost to available affordability schemes, subsidise social broadband tariffs, impose regulation requiring minimum standards of connectivity, offer help with paying bills, and help to identify the people most in need through their existing channels.   

  • We need long-term solutions that are sustainable beyond the pandemic

Industry and the third sector stepped up to meet public need during the pandemic with stop-gap measures that helped hundreds of thousands of people. To name just a few: BT, Openreach, Virgin Media, Sky, TalkTalk, O2, Vodafone, Three, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, and KCOM took measures to lift data allowance caps on their broadband services; DevicesDotNow and others distributed donated and refurbished devices to families in need; and the Department for Education partnered with telecom companies to provide free data to disadvantaged families through schools.

But there is a clear need to develop long-term solutions to data poverty that are sustainable beyond the crisis moment. For example, what happens to the group of children next year who enter school without home access, or to the family whose limited-time free offer of connectivity runs out so they must again choose between food and connectivity? According to the Association of Colleges, 36 percent of colleges in England do not have sufficient access available, even in school. If industry and the third sector are meant to continue support for disadvantaged families and individuals, there must be a long-term plan in place to fund these initiatives and to address the multiple factors that contribute to digital poverty, including access to adequate devices and consumer choice (the ability to choose among fairly priced competitive internet service providers).

  • Data poverty is poverty

A clear theme that emerged in the roundtable was the intersection between data poverty and socio-economic deprivation. Although data poverty is a relatively new concept, it is not distinctfrom poverty writ large. Rather, the digital divide is a determinant of poverty, just like the inability to afford heating or inadequate nutrition. People who lack digital skills also often pay more for utilities and earn less per year. In short, data poverty contributes to the poverty premium. And in the midst of our most profound modern health crisis, research increasingly shows that digital exclusion is a determinant of health outcomes.

For these reasons, it is important to consider data poverty in the same terms in which we consider other forms of deprivation. And we should ask: what is the minimum standard needed to survive in our digital world? Projects like the newly minted Minimum Digital Living Standardresearch network will aim to address this issue, recognising that poverty is often defined by context as much as by simple thresholds like the speed of a connection or the availability of a single device. When families need to share devices, for instance, a limited resource winds up spread thinly across individuals’ needs.

  • There is a need to more accurately identify need

Data poverty is two-fold: it is about getting people access to the data (internet service) they need, but on the delivery side, it is also about gathering better data to locate the need. 

While there is a clear willingness to deliver more affordable access and devices to people who need them, there is a distinct gap in evidence about who those people are and what mechanisms lead to digital poverty. Here, again, is a clear role for the Government, which has the ability to signpost to those with a registered disability, jobseekers, those on free school meals, those in poor health, carers, those on low income, and those in receipt of Universal Credit, for example. These have been key vulnerable groups identified during the pandemic; we need to ensure that the pipeline of information from government to service delivery stays open and that existing channels to these people are shared between government departments so that people’s entire needs are met.

  • Where people have access is as important as other factors

It is easy to overlook the important qualitative differences in access to data that contribute to “data poverty.” For example, public internet access points have long been part of strategies for digital inclusion. The Government’s 2017 Digital Strategy called libraries the “go-to providers” of digital inclusion, and public libraries are, in fact, vitally important access points for people living in data poverty. (My own research with colleagues at the University of Oxford showed that 29% of library computer users in Oxfordshire had neither computers nor internet access at home.)

But public access is not qualitatively the same as access at home, and public wifi cannot be considered an adequate solution for people to be digitally included. Not only do people who rely on public wifi have fewer opportunities to acquire and practise digital skills, but they can also be subjected to more surveillance and tracking on public networks. Certain tasks, like attending court hearings and online banking are more difficult and risky in public internet spaces — and it is often marginalised people who are forced to conduct their private (online) lives in public. Therefore, priority must be placed on at-home or mobile internet suitable to individuals’ needs.

I think at least one further point deserves attention in a discussion of digital poverty. This is the related, downstream impact of data poverty on further digital exclusion. In particular, this is the problem of people living in data poverty becoming “missing data.” One attendee mentioned in the Zoom chat that many people are unable to prove their identity to digital ID systems. (This was a criticism leveled by the National Audit Office on the Verify system for Universal Credit.) The issue of datafied invisibility is a nuanced aspect of data poverty: people become increasingly invisible to digital systems when they do not leave data trails, and they cannot leave data trails when they cannot access or afford the internet.

Avoiding these feedback loops in which the poor have inadequate access to the internet and are further penalised for their inadequate access — by high utility bills, targeted scams, and failed credit checks, etc. — should be of paramount concern to society, the business sector, and certainly to Government.

These and other issues related to digital poverty along with policy recommendations that have emerged from the #DPIS21 meetings will inform a forthcoming Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022 for the Digital Poverty Alliance. Read the interim report here.

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG for Data Poverty, in collaboration with the APPG Digital Skills, APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.

Day 3: Research and Development – How Can the Tech Sector Drive Innovation in the UK Economy and Help Close the Digital Divide?

Both the title and discussion of yesterday’s installment of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit left open the question of the relationship between tech innovation and the digital divide: is the question whether it is possible for the tech sector to both drive innovation and close the digital divide (i.e. are these ambitions at odds with one another)? Or, is it whether tech sector-driven innovations in the UK economy could possibly close the digital divide (i.e. is innovation the answer to inequality)? 

Depending on how one interprets the question, there are two potential debates and two sets of policy recommendations that might emerge from the provocation. The November 17th roundtable was hosted by the APPG PICTFOR and supported by a cross-party group of MPs and the Digital Poverty Alliance. Speakers included MPs from both parties and a representative from Telecoms Supply Chain Diversification Advisory Council, and there were also many contributions from attendees. One of the invited speakers framed the discussion by asking, “what can the tech sector do?” The speaker pointed out that this marked a departure from asking — as is often the case in parliamentary circles — “what can Government do?” 

And it is certainly a critical question. What can the tech sector do? To put it succinctly: arguably, the tech sector has done a lot. And, arguably, it could do a great deal more.

During the pandemic, collaboration between the tech sector, local charities, and Government helped mitigate some of the severe disparities in digital access and skills that were damaging people’s lives. I mentioned a number of these programmes in the blog about #DPIS21 Day 2 on Data Poverty — from device donation schemes to free data packages. Roundtable speakers also brought up the many digital skills bootcamps and apprenticeship programmes spearheaded by companies — Barclays Digital EaglesLloyds Bank AcademyGoogle Garage, and the Amazon apprenticeship scheme. The tech sector is also a major sponsor of digital inclusion initiatives more broadly — from research conducted by charities to afterschool code clubs to APPGs themselves. However, this smattering of fragmented interventions can result in incomplete user journeys, riddled with too many opportunities for vulnerable people to slip through the cracks. Still, it is clear that the tech sector is doing a lot.

It can also do more. One speaker described the “interdependence of innovation and closing the digital divide.” Transformative innovation is contingent on digital and social equity. This means access and accessibility — not just to connections and devices but to the tech sector itself. According to the Wise Campaign, just 16.7 percent of ICT professionals are women. Tech Nationreports that women hold only 22 percent of tech directorships. And a 2017 report by PwC finds that just 3 percent of women say that technology would be their first choice for a career. There is also a 20-point gap between men and women who study STEM in school. These figures point to a societal responsibility across all sectors — and especially those that benefit and create profit from the digital world — to address the systemic inequalities that make the digital world unfair and uncomfortable for many marginalised people and also make it hard for marginalised people to participate in building that world.

Ultimately, there were two questions to address at the roundtable and two resulting categories of themes that emerged:

Driving Innovation

The discussion on innovation centred on education and skills. Industry needs a more digitally capable workforce and stronger tech skills coming out of formal education in order to work in the tech sector. In fact, digital skills are needed across all sectors, with at least 82% of online advertised openings across the UK requiring digital skills and paying around 29% over those that do not. Beyond technical competencies, one speaker pointed out that a future workforce also needs to be adaptable, as the tech landscape changes constantly. 

There were strong resonances in this part of the discussion with themes from the roundtable on capabilities, and the issue of adaptability points to the need for creativity and abstract thinking skills alongside technical competences.

In addition, speakers mentioned the need for diversity in the tech sector, articulating a desire to encourage young people from underrepresented backgrounds to consider tech careers. Not only is the participation of women, non-binary, and BAME individuals critical for to achieve social equality, but their leadership in the sector can also help ensure products and services meet the needs of the whole population. 

However, the conversation stopped short of fully engaging with the question of digital exclusion and the negative feedback loop between digital poverty and employment prospects. The Nominet Digital Youth Index reports that “Tech jobs are least appealing to those most impacted by inadequate tech,” with men and those on higher incomes more likely to consider tech a viable career. Motivation was not mentioned, but it is also key here. A lack of interest in technology or the tech sector can be rooted in many intersectional factors contributing to digital and social exclusion — including negative experiences online like harassment and bullying. According to the same 2017 PwC survey cited above, 83 percent of young women said that they actively look for employers that prioritise diversity, equality, and inclusion.

The discussion highlighted the importance of focusing on the small — local and regional success stories, and the role of small startup companies in the tech ecosystem. Supporting Combined Authorities that drive innovation in their regions as well as small businesses can not only open up opportunities for innovation but also encourage workers to consider working locally and in smaller companies.

Finally, the hunger and need for collaboration across sectors (including Government) and internationally emerged as a prominent theme. The digital economy is a global one, so it will be vital to learn lessons from other countries and build bridges beyond borders at a time when Britain is having to renegotiate its relationship with even its closest economic partners.

Closing the Digital Divide

On closing the digital divide, the roundtable discussion focussed mainly on infrastructure to deliver connectivity. In 2021 it is unacceptable that parts of the UK are entirely without internet connections, particularly in rural areas. Recommendations on this topic included the need for the telecom sector to be completely transparent about where there is market failure (that is, an area that is not commercially viable to connect) so that Government can step in or assist. 

And, as one speaker put it, the policy cannot be “connect and forget.” Connectivity must come with long-term, community-embedded digital and social inclusion in the form of robust digital education in schools and local resources on digital skills.

The rural-urban digital divide is still an important consideration in the UK, where of the roughly 2% of properties in England unable to get even 10 Mbit/s connections, over 50% are rural. Although it did not get a mention at the roundtable, Government initiatives like the Rural Gigabit Voucherprogramme have helped telecom operators extend coverage to harder-to-reach areas, including small and community-owned internet service providers (ISPs). For the last several years, I have done research in rural communities that are working to get internet connections, and they often face bureaucratic barriers (the process of applying for vouchers requires whole departments for many ISPs) or severe delays (when local councils give a tender to a provider that will not build within the year). Despite infrastructure sharing regulations that allow multiple operators to use existing passive networks, another issue in infrastructure rollout is overbuild, where telecom companies install more infrastructure where it already exists rather than extending infrastructure to new areas. These are important issues at the intersection of the tech sector and Government, which deserve discussion in a forum on the role of industry in closing the digital divide.

There is a tendency for conversations about the tech industry to veer toward what academics call “technological solutionism,” meaning that technology is seen as the answer to social problems. Forums like these throw up an important question, as the tech sector steps up to fill some gaps in digital inclusion: is tech solutionism inevitable when we leave the solutions to the tech sector? Almost in response to this unspoken question, a final big theme from the roundtable was the role of Government. Echoing the first two days of the Summit, discussions pointed to the need for Government to set a clear agenda and to help the tech sector with the kind of social transformation — of education, for instance — needed to address both inclusion and innovation. 

In my view, the conversation skirted some of the most pressing issues in relation to the tech sector’s role and responsibility in relation to the digital divide (which encompasses many more issues of exclusion beyond connectivity alone). For example, there is the issue of technology design — and the need to centre the experiences of disabled users, second-language speakers, the elderly, cognitive diversity, and more. There is also the issue of how the tech sector contributes to deepening disadvantage for some people — through surveillance and risk profiling, for instance. And there is the role of the tech sector in mitigating online harms — including both the content people access online but also how their data is extracted and repurposed. 

Of course, the tech sector is a broad category that could conceivably include everything from online platforms or telecom companies to hardware manufacturers or infrastructure suppliers. It is a challenge to unpack the role of such a diverse sector, let alone in a single roundtable. By the end of the discussion, though, everyone seemed to agree on one thing: technology is likely part of the solution to the digital divide, but it is certainly not all of it. 

“We all want to help,” said the final speaker, an attendee representing a tech SME. There is an unmistakable drive within the tech sector to close the digital divide and end digital poverty; we need a collaborative and critical cross-sector community to accomplish it. This is a space that the Digital Poverty Alliance hopes to occupy, as a convenor of dialogue and collaborations. As a member of the Digital Poverty Alliance community, I see these roundtables as crucial starting points for updating the agenda around digital poverty, and the recommendations and gaps that emerge will inform the UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022. 

Read the interim evidence review here.

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG PICTFOR, in collaboration with the APPG Digital Skills, APPG Data Poverty and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.

Day 4: Education and the Digital Divide

“This is about the new normal,” declared a teachers’ union member at yesterday’s Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit, which tackled the issue of education and the digital divide. The comment succinctly captured a chorus of personal experience and insight that reverberated with real feeling through the discussion. As the title of the roundtable itself suggested, this “new normal” arguably encompasses both the reality of blended online and offline learning that will endure beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and the realisation of the profound digital inequalities that are exacerbating an education gap for already-disadvantaged students. 

The discussion on education rather fittingly focused on what we could learn from the pandemic moment to inform a more digitally and educationally equitable future. Speakers universally shared a concern and commitment to apply lessons about what worked and what failed to future strategic planning about technology in education. As one speaker put it, the worry is that because this period has been so challenging, educators will now “walk away and just say ‘thank goodness’.” 

But none of the roundtable contributors seemed inclined to walk away. Speakers included three former Secretaries of State for Education or Children, MPs chairing other APPGs for Social Mobility and Education Technology, the Shadow Minister for Schools, the General Secretaries of the NASUWT and NEU, senior representatives of the National Association of Head Teachers, Ofsted, Teach First, UNICEF, BESA, the Learning Foundation, Times Higher Education, and Digital Unite. Several speakers recounted first-hand experiences of families asking for help accessing devices and connectivity during lockdowns — and many receiving it through schemes like the Department for Education’s Get Help With Technology programme. And there was much praise for teachers and schools, as well as community initiatives, like local football clubs, that stepped up to provide digital resources to children in need. 

It was clear that the pandemic exposed the scale of a longstanding problem: today, digital exclusion is a key contributor to social disadvantage. According to a report by the Sutton Trust, in the first week of the January 2021 lockdown, just 10 percent of teachers said their students had adequate access to a device for remote learning. And Ofcom estimates that more than 1.7 million children do not have access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet at home. 

And the disparities were greatest for the most disadvantaged; a UCL survey found that one in five children receiving free school meals had no computer access at home. A survey by TeachFirstreported that 84 percent of schools with the poorest students did not have enough devices and internet access to ensure they could keep learning.

In considering how we learn from the crisis and adapt to a new normal, several forward-looking themes emerged over the course of the discussion:

Teachers need support and training to make the most of digital technologies for learning.

“Technology is a tool, not an end in itself” was a repeated refrain in the roundtable. Strategic thinking around a digital education needs to focus on how teachers and technology can work together to deliver a better education — which also means a fairer and more equitable educational experience. There were many anecdotal lessons learned during the pandemic about best practice in online and hybrid learning. For example, one speaker pointed out that “there was a quiet accrual of more mundane uses of technology,” citing online vocabulary quizzes for foreign languages as an example. Although the “digital classroom” often conjures images of smart whiteboards and virtual reality headsets, there are fairly simple digital tools available to teachers that are under-utilised for engaging students in traditional classroom settings.

But teachers need training to make the most of digital technologies. Several speakers were part of the education system when information technology (IT) was a new frontier, and one recalled how “tech was used by some and feared by others,” which led to different learning experiences for students in the classroom. Many nodding heads in my Zoom grid seemed to indicate that this is still a relevant issue. Another speaker pointed out that young aspiring teachers are often assumed to have digital skills, and as a result, digital skills are not included in teacher training. But it will be crucial to develop pedagogy around online and hybrid learning, with a distinct focus on how to integrate digital literacies and technologies into teaching. Speakers raised open questions, such as “what is tech good at, and what are people good at, and how can they work together?” Or, “when is face-to-face teaching essential and when could online learning be more effective?” 

I would venture to suggest that behind these important questions about best practice and pedagogy is a need for immediate research on learning experiences during the pandemic with the people who delivered them: teachers. This research must include deep, thoughtful qualitative insights in order to develop better teacher training and equip teachers with strategies that work, and it needs to be done now — while the learning is fresh.

Education extends into the home.

The digital divide in education reflects a societal divide, and we cannot fix one without addressing the other. Schools are often expected to compensate for lack of support at home for children — they are meant to be great levelers. But speaker after speaker pointed out how schools cannot do this leveling alone. There is an educational continuum between school and the home and community, so thinking about education means thinking about all of these domains at once. 

The pandemic blurred the lines between school and home, drawing attention to the ways in which different private environments impact learning. For example, some children have quiet, private spaces to study, while others have to share devices and space, contending with constant distractions and demands on their time and attention. Roundtable speakers pointed out that this has always been the case; online learning during the pandemic just made these differences more obvious. 

As Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone write in their book based on survey data and qualitative interviews, Parenting for a Digital Future, “although both better-off and poorer parents try to use technology to confer advantage, they are very differently positioned to do so.” Socio-economic differences are especially pronounced in the home, where children are influenced by the dynamics of family and space. One speaker recounted how some parents on low incomes needed to borrow their children’s devices during the pandemic in order to work or search for jobs. 

And digital skills are also an issue among family members. “We didn’t train the parents,” one former Secretary of State for Education said, and this was a major oversight in the rollout of IT in schools. Motivation to engage with the digital world has a lot to do with context, others pointed out. After all, we know from national surveys, including Ofcom and Lloyds Bank, that people are most comfortable learning and asking for help with digital skills from people they trust, like friends and family. And with nearly a 34 percent reported increase in homeschooling since last year, addressing the digital divide in education cannot just stop at school gates; it has to extend to parents, who need access to free, lifelong digital skills training.  

We tend to focus on the digital divide, but technology offers opportunities, too.

The expansion of digitisation and digital technologies in schools has worsened inequality for many disadvantaged students, but speakers also painted a more optimistic picture about how technology offers opportunities to make education fairer and more inclusive. Digital technologies can help to engage students with different learning styles and needs, and it can also enable students to learn in more individualised ways than would be possible in a traditional, analogue classroom. The potential to adapt course material to different ability levels offers exciting possibilities for education that meets students where they are and accommodates cognitive diversity.

In addition, digital technologies can help improve teacher productivity and enable teachers to more effectively share knowledge. Despite an acknowledgement that teachers worked harder during the pandemic in a hybrid format than perhaps ever before, several speakers mentioned the role of technology in potentially reducing teacher workload by streamlining administrative tasks, including assessments. One learning from the pandemic was that online options for some educational engagements can be equalising; online parents’ evenings allowed some working parents to engage with teachers for the first time because they could do so from home, rather than traveling to the school. 

There was also enthusiasm for innovations that could lead to what we might call the “datafied classroom” — the use of data collection and analytics to influence student outcomes. One speaker mentioned the potential of machine learning to track students’ performance in class to help identify individual learning challenges that would otherwise go unseen. Teachers could be notified by digital systems if students are struggling or bored. “This is the direction we should be moving in,” the speaker said, adding that down the line there is the potential that a young person’s progress could be constantly monitored, ultimately replacing the need for exams. “That’s not a threat; it’s an opportunity.”

Listening to this roundtable discussion, I was surprised to hear such unmitigated optimism about using datafied predictions in education, especially following the highly controversial Ofqual algorithm that predicted students’ A-level results in 2020 and demonstrated biases that devastated many students’ university prospects and prompted public protests. Any discussion of student data and algorithmic processes in education should include at least a nod toward the equality and privacy implications of such an extensive proposed regime of surveillance and assessment. The Ada Lovelace Institute last year published a blog outlining what safeguards should be in place following the Ofqual debacle, and has also published resources on algorithmic accountability that can inform public policy. Although, as this theme in the discussion highlights, there are opportunities for technology to improve classroom experiences, at this stage no technological solution should be posited without critical reflection on potential harms and downstream impacts on inequality.

We need to involve children in decisions about digital education and tools.

The final and perhaps most important theme of the roundtable was on “learning from the experts,” as one speaker put it. The experts, in this case, are children and teachers themselves. Taking a children’s rights approach to education and the digital divide means not only addressing the whole spectrum of children’s wellbeing in education (from access to devices to critical thinking skills for dealing with the digital world), but it also requires that children are consulted in the design and deployment of technologies for learning. Designing technologies withand not just for children can result in better digital consent policies and more inclusive, accessible tools that meet the needs of people with physical or cognitive disabilities, language barriers, and more.

Academic research — by danah boyd and Sonia Livingstone in particular — has long argued for including children as decision-makers in digital policy. And the ICO has issued some guidance on how to engage with children in the design of technology, recognising the importance of user-driven design. Still, the narrative around children often focuses on protection rather than empowerment. But the equitable, fair, and just digital future we want must be built with children’s rights at the core.

Even in an hour and a half-long roundtable, with many distinguished and informed speakers, there were topics left untouched that deserve a mention here. For example, the discussion did not address digital inequality in higher education (a Jisc survey reports that 63% of higher education students had problems with wifi connectivity, mobile data costs, or access to suitable devices and spaces to study during the pandemic). Nor did it engage with the role of algorithms and big data in education — which, as scholars Elinor Carmi and Simeon Yates argue, must include education about algorithms and big data. 

To me, the most notable omission was the topic of “EdTech” — technology and platforms marketed specifically for educational settings, which has seen accelerated uptake during the pandemic. The language quizzes mentioned by a speaker (and referenced above in this blog) are an example. In many ways, EdTech is revolutionising learning in positive ways, helping teachers mark work faster and collaborate with colleagues and helping to engage students with multimedia and interactive content. But the adoption of EdTech deserves more circumspection. 

Technologies for learning are often integrated into the classroom without due consideration of children’s data or privacy and the long-term implications for who has power and influence in an educational system (increasingly, power concentrates in the hands of EdTech companies, which build the technologies and capitalise on collecting and analysing student data). EdTech makes a lot of things more convenient, but the tyranny of convenience (as legal scholar and author Tim Wu put it) is that it masks the choices that tech companies are making about how we live, work, learn, and play. The much-debated and -anticipated Online Safety Bill, which holds tech companies accountable for how their products are designed and marketed for young users, does not specifically apply to EdTech. As Sonia Livingstone has written, “Schools have few mechanisms, and insufficient resources, to hold EdTech companies accountable for the processing of children’s data. EdTech providers, on the other hand, have considerable latitude to interpret the law, and to access children in real time learning to test and develop their products.” 

And this is an even bigger issue, now that the digital divide is front-and-centre in our debates about the future of education. Some children — particularly the most disadvantaged — will rely on school-issued digital devices and free digital services and platforms in school and at home. If those devices and platforms are designed to track students’ activities, those students can be perpetually surveilled, entrenching inequalities in surveillance and policing of behaviour for the most marginalised. The issues of the school-home continuum and children’s rights are clearly implicated in the rollout of EdTech in schools, so it needs to be on the agenda for tackling the digital divide.

Acknowledging the interconnectedness of the various issues that arose at the roundtable, speakers championed the goal of working together. The topic of education is a particularly personal one. Speakers regularly remarked on how they were coming to the issue not only as a professional, but also as a parent. With the will to learn the lessons of the pandemic, all that remains is to ensure that we engage with the full complexity of those lessons — the triumphs and failures, the visionary innovations and the blind spots. “All the puzzle pieces are there,” said a speaker representing the Digital Poverty Alliance, “they just need to be put together.” 

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG Digital Skills, in collaboration with the APPG Data Poverty and APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.

Day 5: Beating the Barriers – Online Safety, Security, and Accessibility

In September 2020 the Government announced a new National Data Strategy, which aspired to “make the UK the safest place in the world to go online.” Safety was at the heart of this strategy for tech innovation and growth, and its legislative manifestation is the draft Online Safety Bill, which sets out a new regulatory regime to tackle harmful content online by placing a duty of care on certain internet service providers that allow users to upload content and search the internet. Online safety, security, and accessibility were the focus of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit on Wednesday, and the bill was centre stage.

Roundtable speakers and contributors included members of the Commons and Lords involved in drafting or evaluating the bill, representatives of Barnardo’s children’s charity, the Children’s Media Centre, TikTok, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, and the NSPCC to name a few. Unlike the other summit roundtables, this one was distinctly more focused — with a piece of draft legislation in the pipeline, there is a clear goal with potential for impact on how people experience the internet. I was struck by how this fact rendered the discussion more consequential but perhaps less capacious. With the country on the cusp of legislation that would protect people from a panoply of online harms, harmful but elusive issues like inequality, bias, and discrimination received hardly a mention. 

That said, the Online safety bill has been heralded as groundbreaking, even revolutionary, with a great deal of potential to set a benchmark that more of the world will follow. Undoubtedly the anticipation around this bill is in part because it is arriving “late” in the evolution of the internet and online platforms. One speaker called it “a good late step.” It is also in part because its present arrival opens up the potential for it to be a repository of our regulatory hopes and dreams about how to make the internet better — to fix what has seemingly gone wrong. But if it is to be effective, the bill must rise above the specific grievances that make it urgent and necessary — to tackle the systemic and system-level issues that underpin the worst abuses online. “If too much is loaded onto this legislation,” one speaker warned, “it will fall under its own weight.”

Although perhaps contributing to that burden, the discussion centred on several issues that speakers hoped the bill would ultimately address:

  • The Online Safety Bill must do more to address the most egregious harms to children, especially exposure to pornography and grooming.

“Childhood lasts a lifetime,” one roundtable speaker remarked. And it was clear that most of the contributors to the discussion viewed the protection of children as a primary concern for the bill. Speakers see the legislation as a chance to achieve what the 2017 Digital Economy Act has failed to do: implement robust age verification for pornographic content and reduce child exposure to sexual content and sexual exploitation, such as grooming. Behind these concerns is a broader anxiety about the long-term social impact that these experiences can have on behaviour and wellbeing. And negative online experiences are arguably a bigger issue, encompassing a whole range of social and socialising experiences. According to The Wireless Report, four out of every ten young people have been subject to online abuse, and 25 percent of young people have received an unwanted sexual message online. Ofcom reports that more than half of 12 to 15 year-olds have had a “negative” experience online, such as bullying, and 95 percent of 12 to 15s who use social media and messaging apps said they felt people were mean or unkind to one another online.

Roundtable contributors also raised the issue of encryption and the potential of end-to-end encryption on social media platforms in particular to hide the activities of child abusers. There are no simple answers to these thorny issues. Encryption can hide illegal or harmful activities, but it can also protect privacy, activism, and free speech. So called “back doors” that would allow law enforcement to access certain encrypted content also opens up the potential for exploiting those security weaknesses by others. Although some speakers returned to the “duty of care” outlined in the draft bill to argue that platforms will have to prove that encryption, in combination with other design choices on platforms, is consistent with a duty of care to users, few of the issues that sit at the uncomfortable nexus between safety (or its foil, harm) and security are black-and-white. Flexibility in approach will likely be the bill’s ultimate strength, but it inherently leaves open many questions that people want answers to. Really, what people want is for tech companies to have to answer to them.

  • Ofcom must be adequately supported to take on its new power and responsibility under the bill.

Another theme from the discussion was the need for Ofcom to be resourced effectively to exercise its new powers under the draft legislation and to shoulder its new regulatory responsibility. Indeed, this is a whole new frontier for the regulator presently tasked with overseeing the telecoms market. The Ofcom chief executive has expressed some trepidation about the sheer volume of user complaints the regulator may face and the legal battles likely to be fought with tech companies that fail to comply with the new regulations. Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries wants criminal liability for tech company directors, setting Ofcom up for a confrontation with the likes of Mark Zuckerburg. 

Bill supporters at the roundtable were quick to offer reassurance that Ofcom would be equipped to handle its new duties, but it is understandable that questions remain. The multi-billion dollar platforms in the eye of the storm have struggled (and often failed) to handle reported abuses on their own sites, which host billions of users speaking different languages and with different cultural reference points. Critics of big tech will argue (probably rightly) that those failures are largely down to lack of will; harmful content still makes money. But there are other factors, too. They are also due to an egregious lack of local, contextual knowledge — essential for tackling harms, which are socially constructed and embedded. And due to scale — companies have employed both human moderators and algorithms in an effort to manage the volume of content and complaints, and it is still not enough. Ofcom has reason to be concerned. And therefore, the bill’s drafters do, too. 

I was left reflecting on the important questions we still need to ask about the aspirational outcomes the bill is meant to achieve. Goals like transparency and accountability will be most impactful at the system level in taking companies to task, but what about user empowerment and agency? Big tech might think about users as a stream of data points, but this bill has the potential to treat them like individuals — human beings with a context as well as a complaint — and that would be truly revolutionary. So, to return to this theme from the roundtable, is Ofcom prepared to perform that role? 

  • A legislated approach to online harms must be adaptive and focused on the systems level in order to be future-facing.

The last theme worth drawing out from the roundtable discussion was the issue of future-proofing the bill. “Future-proof” is a common expression in technology development and deployment, but I think it is not quite the right way to frame the concept. It would be better (albeit less catchy) to conceptualise it as “uncertainty-aware.” Coupled with the almost universally shared feeling that this bill might be too little, too late in a digital ecosystem that has developed largely without the kind of toothy government regulation that can bite, there was also a palpable feeling in this Zoom call of wanting to get it right this time: getting ahead of the game, rather than playing catch-up later on. 

One roundtable contributor said, “When rules are too prescriptive, they’re easy to get around.” The solution, according to multiple contributors at the roundtable, will be to ensure the bill can be adapted to yet-unanticipated future scenarios. It must comprehensively address and define (to some extent) the dangers of the internet as we know it today, but it must also leave open the possibility that new powers and responsibilities may need to be bestowed on the regulatory process. It is important to recognise that this uncertainty-aware approach is not the child of necessity, born of the digital age. It is how laws are often made (and changed). In fact, one speaker explained that the idea behind the bill is not to do something radically new but to “level the field between online and other environments.” As media scholars have long argued, while the digital age has ushered in unprecedented technological and societal changes, it is overly sensational to treat it as entirely new and unfamiliar.    

What is difficult, I would argue, in the drafting of this bill is that there are such clear “perpetrators” of harm exacerbation and perpetuation: digital platform companies (Facebook and Google, for instance). This is what happens when we outsource our democracy to undemocratic companies in Silicon Valley, one speaker said. They are in our mind’s eye when we think about how to make this law work. And that is helpful on the one hand because it can concretise certain concepts and terminology in an effort to close loopholes for the companies we know we want to get their houses in order. But on the other hand, we also somehow need to keep a focus on the bigger picture: tackling online harms requires challenging the underlying logic of the digital economy, which trades on people’s personal data and analyses it without adequate consent in order to manipulate behaviour and generate more profit. At least one speaker made this point: it is not as much about the harmful material online as it is about how that material is surfaced and promoted by algorithmic processes. And this is an important point. As an investigation by The Markup found recently, algorithms on Facebook show some users extreme content not just once but hundreds of times. It is about the content and it is about what makes the content valuable — user attention

A joint committee held hearings about the Online Safety Bill that ended earlier in November and is set to conclude its report by December 10th and publish shortly after that. It will be interesting to see which aspects of this conversation — and contributions to the hearings — make it into the revised document. 

One theme that has consistently emerged in all of the previous roundtables during the Summit was absent in this one: the social and societal dimensions of online safety. One speaker did mention that there is a continuum between the online and the offline when it comes to harms. But there is a risk that in focusing on defining what constitutes a harm worthy of regulation, we never get to the crucial conversation about the uneven distribution of harms in society — how and why certain harms disproportionately accumulate for certain people. We know, for instance, that there is a gendered dimension to pornographic content and exposurewomen, girls, and LGBTQIA+ individuals have faced increased online harassment during the pandemic, and children with an impacting/limiting condition are more likely to experience bullying and other negative interactions online. But issues like accessibility did not feature in the discussion. Many of the harms exacerbated by digital content are socially embedded and conditioned. Therefore, platform regulation must accompany comprehensive sex and relationship education that addresses not only interpersonal communication and interactions online but also media literacy. Our digitally mediated lives are a mirror to norms, behaviours, and inequalities in society more broadly; the capitalisation of data and the algorithmic manipulation of data for commercial ends can turn the mirror into an anamorphic funhouse. A truly systems-level approach to online safety needs to take on systems of oppression and marginalisation both in cyberspace and in society as a whole.

This can only be done with the participation of people in the processes of accountability outlined in the bill. People need to be empowered not only to report harms but to define what harms are(right now, the draft bill leaves the category open to interpretation by the Culture Secretary, Ofcom, and Parliament in consultation with one another). And in addition to algorithmic transparency and accountability to a regulator, there must be transparency to the citizen-user in the form of meaningful consent regimes that give people more actual control over their data and reporting regimes that make people feel like the harms they have experienced are real, legitimate, and actionable. Legislation wields the semantic power to define certain terms and relationships, like user and harm. Tech companies have built digital spaces that define us (users) as consumers first and foremost. The law has an obligation to reassert our citizenship, instead.

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG Digital Skills, in collaboration with the APPG Data Poverty and APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.