Join your nearest Empowering Women training (running in July and September only)

Digital inclusion for local government and education

In summer 2022, digital leaders and subject experts from education and from local authorities met for a roundtable conversation. They shared experiences, knowledge and identified what to do next.

Some common themes emerged:

  • Getting started in a digital world
  • Making the online world make sense
  • Leadership and expertise
  • Connectivity
  • Procurement

There’s a variety of effective ideas and initiatives around the country. The delegates talked about how to collaborate better to try and apply these projects more widely, so everyone can make faster progress on digital inclusion.

Illustration showing a group of people communicating with electronic devices via video calls, email and text messages.

Introduction

The pandemic has given fresh urgency to a long-standing problem. The problem is digital inequality, which exists throughout UK society.

Successive lockdowns showed starkly that people who couldn’t easily get online struggled to access key public services. They were effectively shut out from formal and informal emotional support networks. And too many struggled to work or study remotely when this was the only way to earn and learn.

Now, this issue, which has been coming to the fore for years, is a huge priority for national policy makers as well as for more local ones.

Here at Socitm, inclusion is a thread that runs through everything we do. That is also true for Jisc, the UK’s digital body for tertiary education and research.

Together, as a cross-sector initiative, we are exploring how we can help to address digital inequality in education. During the summer of 2022, we brought together digital leaders and subject experts from the education sector and from local authorities for a roundtable discussion, to explore how collectively, we can support student communities to get online, wherever they are when they need to study.

I’m grateful to everyone who made time to attend the roundtable, share their experiences and insights and tell us what they are doing to improve digital connectivity and digital competence.

This briefing gives you a flavour of the conversation. And now, with these insights in mind, Jisc and Socitm will work together on a set of recommended actions to tackle digital inequality in education. We also want to facilitate the ability of our respective members to practically address these issues and make positive changes in the communities we serve. Together, we can all aim to ensure that all students have reliable, affordable access to online platforms, tools and resources so they can reach their potential, fulfill their ambitions and contribute to society.

Dave Sanderson
Director of member services, Socitm

This roundtable was conducted between representatives from organisations that are members of Jisc and Socitm, under the Chatham House Rule.

Roundtable delegates

Representatives from Jisc

  • Samantha Ahern – Faculty learning technology lead (Bartlett), UCL
  • Rachel James – Assistant principal for teaching and learning, Barnsley College
  • Louise Morgan – Assistant director (digital), University of York

Representatives from Socitm

  • William Barker – Digital ethics lead and associate director of Socitm
  • Tony Colson – Director of IT, Sense
  • Ivan Goldsmith – Improvement manager, Thanet District Council
  • Beccy James – Senior web development and digital content designer, Worcestershire County Council
  • Adam Micklethwaite – Director of partnerships and fundraising, Good Things Foundation
  • Jo Stevens – Web development TL, Worcestershire County Council
  • Sandra Taylor – Assistant director for IT & digital, Worcestershire County Council
  • Jason Tutin – Digital inclusion manager, 100% Digital Leeds, Integrated Digital Service, Leeds City Council and NHS Leeds Clinical Commissioning

Additional contribution from Gil Ramsden, professional lead for general practice nursing at Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust, who could not be present

“Do digital inclusion right and everyone wins”

For those of us who enjoy good connectivity in our workplaces and at home, it’s sobering to recognise how many people aren’t so lucky. And it’s disappointing to see that connectivity is only one of the obstacles that can keep some from engaging online. But it’s encouraging to see that there’s a huge appetite to improve things. Here’s a taster of what sector representatives shared in their introductions:

“The pandemic has shown that students aren’t digitally native and that’s really started to impact their outcomes”

Louise Morgan, University of York

“Fifty percent of our service users struggle to engage through mobile devices and others have internet/accessibility issues. The county council has a digital strategy with the ‘digital customer’ as a priority”

Sandra Taylor, Worcestershire County Council

“We’re focused on making sure every student has the resources, devices, connectivity, skills and accessibility they need. We also want to see how the college can support the wider community with the digital divide”

Rachel James, Barnsley College

Several themes emerged during the conversation:

Getting started in a digital world

It’s still sadly the case that many people can’t get online, or don’t want to engage with services digitally. In Worcestershire, where the EU-supported Superfast Worcestershire project brought superfast broadband within reach of 97% of homes and businesses, some people are still digitally disadvantaged. Sometimes the barrier is confidence or cost. Warwickshire County Council (WCC) aims to counter this by offering free courses in digital skills and will consider providing free WiFi and laptop loans. There are digital champions in its libraries to help with developing skills or just filling in online forms.

Making the online world make sense

Some people have difficulty navigating web pages and WCC has developed the shaping documents and content for everyday accessible and inclusive practice (SCULPT) model, created to make it easy to produce accessible websites. Training in SCULPT is now mandatory within the organisation and for external suppliers. SCULPT is a great example of an initiative that has ‘legs’ – it is freely available under a Creative Commons licence and other local authorities and several higher education institutes (HEI) use it, including the University of Bath and Sheffield Hallam University. The University of York has its own programme to research user experience and redevelop its web pages so they are easier to engage with.

Clearly, these are all long-term projects; with large websites and large amounts of information to convey, local authority bodies and education institutions say they still have too many static pages and pdfs that people can find tricky.

On a subject closely related to accessible web design, our delegates said it’s essential to review how content is written. This is something that is exercising minds at University College London (UCL) where they are aiming for clear, simple language alongside the human touch so there is someone that service users can reach out to for help. As more services go online, in education and in the wider community, this will become more important.

Leadership and expertise

Leadership buy-in at senior management and national level is key.

Within Leeds City Council, Digital Leeds is a dedicated team working across the organisation to provide leadership on digital. It helps individual departments with the technical nitty-gritty of delivering their digital inclusion strategies so they can focus on their core priorities, like finding local people accommodation or providing effective social care.

Digital Leeds has started recently to do more work in the education sector, recognising that, as Jason Tutin commented, “students aren’t just learners – they may live in poverty or have a disability, for example, that results in digital exclusion.”

Connectivity

“It’s not just about the download speeds,” said Sam Aherne from UCL. Among all the talk about fast download speeds, it’s important to spare a thought for upload speeds, too. Unless people have access to a decent upload speed they can’t take part in a simple video call to their GP, let alone anything more complex like a research project that requires them to transfer large amounts of data.

It’s an issue to consider when configuring services. As organisations switch more of these to digital delivery, setting them up in ways that more people can handle – for example, enabling people to engage via audio if they don’t have the bandwidth for video – will support digital inclusion.

Procurement

Contributors from complex disabilities charity Sense and Thanet District Council said it pays to be smart when it comes to procurement and check carefully that vendors’ assertions about compliance with equality regulations stack up. Whether vendors realise it or not, sometimes a certification might only cover part of their service, which means purchasers could end up with a solution that doesn’t meet their users’ particular accessibility needs.

For the University of York, Louise Morgan talked about how applying the rules of ‘minimum viable product’ when procuring equipment and tools can work against inclusion. It can result in an entry-level product, potentially without refinements that would enable the most disadvantaged 20% to use them successfully. Those 20% will need face-to-face support; organisations that tackle digital inclusion effectively are not just fairer, they are also more cost-effective. It’s a win-win situation.

Seeds of success?

It’s great to see so many ideas and initiatives happening around the country. We talked about what we can do to work together on applying them more widely, so everyone can make faster progress on digital inclusion.

Here’s a few ideas that we’ll be looking at:

Making digital access more affordable

With free community WiFi proving cost-prohibitive and logistically tricky for most local authorities, providing access to connectivity in-home may be the best way forward. Should easy, affordable access be locked into planning requirements for future social housing developments?

Good Things Foundation is already providing affordable access to WiFi as well as refurbished devices to people in need via a network of community partners. In future it aims to do even more. Its newly established National Device Bank is encouraging large corporates to donate end-of-life devices and its Data Poverty Lab is working with telcos to create a digital inclusion fund that will support affordable connectivity for disadvantaged people. These initiatives are ones to watch, potentially offering lots more opportunities for local authorities and education organisations to get more of their service users connected.

There’s a role here for both Jisc and Socitm to promote these and other initiatives, articulate why inclusion matters, share good practice, create a repository of expertise and signpost organisations to sources of information and practical help. Developing a common narrative will help to create a groundswell of activity.

Education and confidence-building

It’s not just students who need support in their learning. Those who design services need training so they understand why accessibility matters, as well as how they should deliver them. There are lots of resources available to get them started, from Jisc, Socitm and others

Digital tolerance is often overlooked but it’s something we need to advocate and foster. Encouraging reluctant service users to try to engage online is one thing; extending the courtesy of giving them time to try, and a helping hand when they stumble will make them less likely to get discouraged.

Who funds digital inclusion?

It’s about doing things the right way, creating quality content that meets a standard and ensuring digital technology is accessible for everyone. It needs to be everyone’s responsibility and embedded in business as usual, a bit like GDPR. Things like assistive technology and equipment for disabled employees can be funded through Access to Work.

Areas of focus

We want to lead and support our members to keep momentum in the continuous journey to address digital inclusion. The below are recommendations highlighted by our cross-sector roundtable and are the starting point for us to draw on our collective expertise and incite change.

  • Common narrative on why digital inclusion matters – stories, case-studies, testimonials
  • Community of interest (related to accessibility and inclusion) – for good practice sharing, repository of experience and community curated resources
  • Mechanisms to encourage partnerships aimed at uncovering people that need support (for example, one LA explained about working with colleges)
  • Elevating and making sure people are getting the benefit from the Good Things Foundation, Jisc’s eduRoam / GovRoam and other relevant initiatives
  • Accessible procurement – as a theme for further discussion, and investigation of tools / resources

Next steps

Socitm and Jisc commit to working together to ensure we collectively support our members address digital inequality in education. Relevant information will be updated on Socitm Include.

However, in the meantime, here are some quick and practical actions you can do now to improve digital inequity within your organisation and community:

Connect

Join an existing community to hear and share effective practice:

Learn

Improve and refine your knowledge to implement change:

Implement

  • Govroam and eduroam – allowing students (and staff) seamless roaming connectivity across thousands of public sector locations