The jazzy switched on and happening TV ads from Microsoft talk about how everyone is working on Teams… but are they? The BCS webinar 'Assisting the 11 million', hosted by Brian Runciman MBCS explores how to address the digital exclusion that is actually rife in the UK. Johanna Hamilton AMBCS reports.

One minute we could all talk face to face, the next we are in isolation. Talking on video calls, using Teams and Zoom and Houseparty have all been second nature to a huge proportion of the population. Although it is fantastic that we have moved forward, so quickly, digitally - the transformation that has taken a few weeks would have taken years in normal life - the cracks are starting to show in society.

To explore whether digital transformation is working for everybody, BCS assembled a panel of experts:

  • Jemma Waters (Head of Responsible Transformation, Lloyds Bank)
  • Adam Micklethwaite (Director of Digital Social inclusion, Good Things Foundation)
  • Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas (Head of Blended Learning, Health Education England)
  • Brian Runciman MBCS, Head of Content, BCS

Kicking off with the stats, Jemma Waters says around 11.9 million people don’t have the digital skills they need for life. Aside from the isolation situation we now find ourselves in, we are progressively becoming a digital society with doctors’ appointments going online, food shopping being ordered online and even navigation from A to B being sorted with Google Maps. That said, a staggering one in five adults are excluded from digital life.

Here are our 10 key takeaways from the BCS webinar...

1. Necessity is the mother of invention

Some people have successfully side-stepped technology, sometimes for decades. Rather than being a ‘tech’s not for me’ choice, these people are now finding themselves severely disadvantaged through their lack of digital skills. Others simply don’t have the budget for devices and WiFi. Or don’t have the training to actually use the new technology.

2. Who is excluded?

Adam Micklethwaite says, ‘It is worth noting that there is a very tight link between people who are excluded from the digital world and other forms of exclusion. Digital exclusion was already a significant societal problem. It comes with and reinforces different forms of social exclusion. You’re more likely to be older, poorer and have lower skills, if you have no digital skills - the two go together.’

There have already been inroads to making a difference in helping those with limited digital or no digital skills to learn. It’s a case of finding ‘friendly faces in familiar places’ says Micklethwaite, these community groups are providing support for people in poverty, whether they are unemployed or in-work poverty, helping them to learn and to find work. The affect of COVID-19 on the economy and on charity support, Adam Micklethwaite says will be ‘deep and damaging’.

3. Philanthropy and kindness are not just for Victorians

The crisis has seen a new age of collaboration, a coming together of ideas and a maturing of relationships. Waters says that across Lloyds Banking group, there are 30 million customers, which is a significant proportion of the UK, but the corporation is committed to helping and working with people across communities, regardless of whom they bank with.

‘People are coming together through necessity, need and a pressure of time to set aside any laborious bureaucracy to put things aside and work together to get things done.' They’ve been thinking about how to be more effective through IT tools such as customer profiling. Looking at different customer channels to keep delivering services.

Waters sums up the last few weeks: ‘Everything has been really expediated. People’s behaviours are changing. People didn’t use online banking before, but now people who can, are being driven online.’

4. Tackling one of the biggest barriers to getting online: confidence

Many people don’t know how to get the internet in their homes. They don’t know about WiFi. Don’t know how to set up or use a device. Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas has found in her own research that it is confidence which is a huge barrier with moving forward with digital literacy.

‘We did a discovery a while back to see how people get engaged in the digital world and it’s about those two things - developing the skills and abilities - and it’s about people actually being motivated to be able to use those technologies.’

5. Devices.now

Getting online. If you haven’t done it, where do you start? Adam Micklethwaite shares the details of a collaboration called future.now that’s brings together corporations including Lloyds Bank, Accenture and BT to fund teaching the skills for the millions of people who are not digitally literate, as well as the hardware to get more people online.

A spin off of that, devices.now takes the donations of devices and connectivity to people on the ground who need them. Around 1,600 households, where people are shielded and isolated, have benefitted from the scheme.

Good Things Foundation has also set up a response and resilience fund, where they’ve transferred some of their reserves into a readily available bank of funds to use in the community for IT support projects that are feeling financial pressure. They’ve also pushed out a platform called ‘learn my way’ which gives people a foundation in digital stills which is easy to use and very accessible.

6. What does the post-COVID landscape look like?

Rising unemployment? More people moving into in-work-poverty? How do we move forward and act well? For many people who aren’t used to the digital world, how can we protect them and help them to stay safe and spot misinformation?

The panel explored what the future might hold. We will need to think about using our time more efficiently when working at home. We will need to balance home schooling. And what about what we don’t know? Will there be new digital skills that need to be learned?

While we are being driven online, the truth is community will still be key. While we are now intent on embedding digital skills in everything through necessity - we still need to remember that IT is about people.

So, will we go too far and only think of digital for future planning? Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas says: ‘While non-digital provision has remained, it is the perception of the individual that because most things have moved into digital the realm that it no longer exists. GP practices are still open. Non-digital provision is still up and running, although sometimes not a full service. Digital services are being used as a first line of defence and advice.’ But the truth is, there will always be space for face-to-face.

Also exploring the sudden upsurge in digital solutions, Micklethwaite acknowledges: ‘We are making this up, on the hoof, but we are building stuff and that’s leading to innovation.’ We have seen a hyper acceleration of resource development that might have needed a couple of years. Humans adapt to situations. It’s really good that we can do so much so soon.’

7. What will education look like?

The department for education has pulled together a very rudimentary ‘most valuable player’ digital skills toolkit. We need to evolve that and build upon it. We almost need a centre of gravity around what is available for people and what it will look like beyond that.

Should we be looking beyond formal teaching? Should we be looking for something more grassroots and community-based? Should we look at new apprenticeships? Should we change how the apprenticeship levy is used? Lifelong learning is looking quite different suddenly. Waters continues: ‘We need to come together and share learnings and are putting societal outcomes and people first rather than specific objectives.’

Jemma Waters is concerned about the new digital norm leading to complacency. ‘There’s a challenge around the quality of being online.’ She states that she is worried that people simply don’t have the skills and understanding to go online safely. What can you click on? Should you ‘allow cookies’. She also believes, ‘there shouldn’t just be learning for now, there should be learning forever.’

8. What skills have you got, what will you need?

Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas, says: ‘We do need a champion. There are people who are motivated, and motivation is key to be responsible for their learning – and there are some people who need some handholding. So how do you support people to get the learning they need?’

She goes on to explore how the current situation could be used to our advantage in training health and care professionals to be able to ‘utilise the digital skills we have now to train people and socialise them into coming into the workforce with some digital skills’.

Make people digital-savvy right from the start. While this sounds great, she also admits: ‘However much funding we get or support there is some responsibility on individuals, organisations and teams.

You can put all the tools and systems in place, but if people do not develop the confidence and the motivation to use them, no amount of investment or funding will change that. There is a big systemic need to address the problem on so many levels.’

9. Donate your commute time

‘Micro volunteer or mentor with the time you would have spent commuting,’ urges Jemma Waters. While many people are saving minutes or sometimes hours on the daily commute, she advises that giving that time away will be beneficial to the community. She continues: ‘Think about what you can do rather than what you can’t. Think about the ecosystem and where you can add value and don’t sell yourself short.’

Adam Micklethwaite continues: ‘Think about your role in your local community. Volunteering within your organisation. As a citizen, we’ve started to see really significant shifts in the way communities feel, there’s a real groundswell of community action. Think about how you can volunteer the skills you have.’

Pass it on

If you don’t use a device, pass it on. Think about donating unwanted devices from your home or company to organisations who can reuse them to help those in the community. One such person was Marie, whose story Micklethwaite shares, and who finishes off the webinar.

Marie, 79, has been widowed for 18 months. She has learned how to use the zoom video app and share it with others. She now regularly calls 14 other isolated people.

Marie says: ‘When you live alone it’s hard. When you pull the blinds down at night it’s very lonely. And the nights are long. It’s great to have these virtual activities to look forward to and to see other people, even if they are on the screen. It really cheers me up. I feel so much better getting up when I know I have a virtual event because I have a reason to get dressed up and do my hair.’