More than skills: Thoughts on ‘hard’ digital engagement and culture

For nine months we’ve been working with The Coalfields Regeneration Trust’s Job Clubs with the aim of building a more meaningful remedy for ‘hard’ digitally excluded attendees.

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What started as an intervention with a practical outcome in mind, has exposed complex problems that may help to explain why some are harder to engage.

They attend digital interventions and pop out at the other end with an e-mail address, but still bereft of digital comprehension that is second nature to the digitally confident.

This short blog attempts to explore some of the possible reasons why.

Identity

There are established problems with low income groups and identity – anyone who has tried to support a Universal Credit claimant prove theirs knows this first hand.

For low income groups, proving your identity is hard. The online world is the opposite; digital identities are set up in seconds and result in new problems of identity management, curation and so on.

For a group who struggle to evidence their real world existence, adapting to a new culture of identit(ies) management is a huge step. Digital interventions that do not engage with this topic loose a key reference point in understanding a digital world.

Digital grammar

Anyone who has studied language has experienced the challenge of understanding new grammar rules; you need a high level of mastery to be able to explain just why one language’s rules are so different to another.

The digital world has its own rules; the lack of spaces in email and website addresses; the hidden hierarchy of search terms; why do you need to try several search terms for the same type of job? Surely a Cleaner is a Cleaner?

Digital skills interventions do touch upon these topics but tends not to explicitly explore them.

Digital geography

The digital world lacks tangible reference points and is as confusing as trying to navigate a foreign city without a map or language skills.

Some job club attendees would sign into their email accounts, and get frustrated at also having to sign into job search websites using their email address, as they thought they’d already signed in to ‘the internet’ when they did so with the email account.

It is an ongoing challenge to furnish this group with the ability to navigate the digital world independently.

It was a common to resolve one problem only for another to emerge, such as CAPTCHA, pop up adverts, and so on. These problems had the impact of a brick wall, with progress and confidence just stopping.

Concluding remarks

It is established that the digital revolution is changing culture and society faster than we can adapt to it confidently.

There is more association of digital exclusion with social exclusion.

However our time working in the job clubs is exposing just how big a gulf exists between the digitally confident and excluded; an intervention measured in hours rather than months is not working for a hard core group left behind by the digital revolution.

It is suggested hard digital exclusion may be better approached like learning language and culture; if the past is a foreign country then a digital future is too.

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