Professor Barry Hake reflects on what we should consider when we talk about upskilling the digitally excluded.
Upskilling the digitally excluded
Digital inclusion is now the ubiquitous term in European policy-speak about adult learning. Acquisition of digital skills is the core topic when discussing how we can improve the quality of adult learning. But it is just as important to recognise the need to do this inclusively – by outreaching to adults with low levels of basic skills, and particularly, with limited digital skills.
A new European policy called Upskilling Pathways aims to address this issue, but its main focus seems to fall on inclusion in the work force. Thus, the need of older people to become citizens of the virtual world is often overlooked, and they are among the most seriously excluded group.
Older people and ‘commanding fingers’
Statistics show significant generational differences in digital literacy. This occurs even in societies with high digital literacy, such as the Netherlands, where internet use among 16-74 year-olds is 94% compared to an EU average of 77%. Among 65-74 year-olds this figure is 75% for Dutch internet users, while the EU average is 38%. But, among the 75+ group, only 38% of the Dutch population are users. This is evident of a clear digital divide.
Social inequalities in the real world in terms of education, income, gender, and age are reflected in the virtual world. The most vulnerable category of the Dutch population comprises low-educated, low-income single women aged over 75. PIAAC data reports 35% functional illiteracy among those over 65, while functional illiteracy among non-internet users aged 65-74 is 40%. To a large extent using the internet involves reading text and lacking the ability to understand and respond to written texts is a major barrier. Many of the elderly don’t have the ‘commanding fingers’ needed to use smartphones. Their hands have also become a little stiff.
Outreach and community-based learning
Policy initiatives focus on formal provision of digital skills in adult learning. But the vital question is whether and how adult learners can acquire and use digital skills through non-formal and informal learning activities. Evidence from the Netherlands suggests that internet use among people with poor literacy skills, especially the elderly, is selective. A research on connectivity and use of internet by the elderly in local communities identifies as a major factor the ‘ageing in place’ policies where people grow older without having to move home. Older people’s internet use or digital habits involve email, finding information, and e-banking. Meanwhile their use of social media is insignificant. The increasing use of text-based apps as ‘smart tools’ to access certain services (public transport, supply of medicines, caring services, contact with local government, etc.) can exclude them from using these services.
Regarding outreach and support strategies, researchers conclude that market-led connectivity and digital portals are not the answer to the digital divide. Their recommendations highlight place-specific and community-based outreach strategies based on civic initiatives and community action groups to activate digital ‘citizens’, not digital ‘consumers’. Learning to use ICTs needs to be embedded in older people’s everyday activities. In other words, older learners have the right as citizens of the digital world to access to a smart phone and to use their commanding fingers.
Self-directed learning: The Return of the autodidact?
EU websites about digital society are dominated by web-based learning environments known as e-learning, open learning, technology-enhanced learning, distributed learning, virtual learning, blended learning, digital learning, ICT-enhanced learning, online learning. Everywhere there are references to ‘personal learning environments’ (PLEs) . PLEs are personal devices (smart phones) and Web-2 software that enable learners to access a wide range of learning resources online such as MOOCs and YouTube. PLEs are often seen as the virtual utopia of internet-based informal learning. And thanks to them self-directed (autodidactic) learning is getting more and more popular.
Fundamental to autodidactic cultural aspirations are the acquisition of reading and writing skills. This is where the commanding fingers are needed. When it comes to acquiring knowledge, skills and sensitivities, Bourdieu said ‘the work of acquisition is work on oneself (self-improvement) that presupposes personal cost, investment, above all of time, with all the privation, renunciation and sacrifice that it may entail’. He also argued that autodidactic practices develop as a response to exclusion from the formal educational system, and that the self-directed learner (or autodidact) is a victim of exclusion from educational entitlement.
This reminds us that core issues in both ‘analogue’ and digital society are the democratic and universal rights to acquisition of knowledge, skills and sensitivities. The task of public education is to educate competent individuals to permanently acquire cultural capital throughout life regardless of their age. Whether the EU agenda for digital learning meets these criteria is open to a debate. The key public policy issue of older people and the digital world is not promoting their access to the internet and their acquisition of digital skills per se.
Online communication for older people should be a question of enhancing their ‘social connectivity’, reducing their sense of exclusion from the local community, and enhancing their contacts with other people in their day-to-day lives. This can involve organising local study groups to:
1) discuss how digital technologies are changing older people’s lives;
2) exchange positive and negative experiences of the digital world;
3) explore how digital skills can help them improve their quality of life.
Older learners have the right as citizens to more than the acquisition of ‘commanding fingers’.
Barry Hake is an independent researcher based in Groningen(NL) and Narbonne(FR).