BLOG POST: Breaking Boundaries – Digital Inclusion for Digital Communities – Laura Hakimi

LauraWe recently hosted the first of our Breaking Boundaries seminars, titled Digital Inclusion for Digital Communities. Our speakers, Dr Jonathan Tummons, from Durham University’s School of Education and James Richardson of Tinder Foundation, provided us with differing but complementary perspectives on notions of digital communities and digital inclusion. An audience from across departments helped to contribute to the interdisciplinary debate – just the sort of discussion we hoped would take place. Thank you to all who attended -both in person and online – and especially to James and Jonathan for such thoughtful presentations (available to view here).

What follows is a brief reflection on issues raised in the seminar, particularly in light of the overarching theme of the series: the use of technology to break down barriers to learning and participation in society. While approaching the theme from apparently different angles, there was some immediate common ground for our two speakers.

Jonathan is currently a co-investigator based in the UK on a three-year institutional ethnography: Medical Education in a Digital Age, which explores the issues that surround the implementation of a new medical education curriculum enacted across two locations in Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, three hundred miles apart. Jonathan described the simultaneous facilitation through technology of this specially designed university course, and the research activities of the team of digital ethnographers.

In his theoretically informed presentation, Jonathan touched on underlying institutional discourses of equality – the notion that technology could and would provide a parity of experience for students across the two sites. Yet Jonathan reflected on emerging research findings that students at the “satellite” site, who received streamed lectures, were less likely to ask questions and engage informally with lecturers, and were therefore engaging in a different way to those students who were experiencing face-to-face tuition. An audience member contributed some personal reflections after undertaking an online teacher training programme, noting that she felt the technology – despite idealized notions of a “global” classroom – actually represented a barrier to her sense of belonging to the student community, rather than facilitating engagement. We discussed the importance of our own discursive constructions of the communities we choose (or choose not) to join, and the learning that accompanies any new application of technology: competency with one form of technology does not necessarily equate to competency in another. An overarching conclusion, perhaps, was the important mediating role of the physical world, including technical or face-to-face support, and real social relations, in the virtual world.

Similar ideas were reflected in James’ presentation, in which he discussed the work of Tinder to support digital inclusion across the 2800 centres of the UK online network. There are currently 11 million people without basic digital literacy, and those who are digitally excluded are likely to also be socially excluded in a number of ways. While discourses might suggest that digital inclusion leads to greater to social inclusion and can, therefore, break down barriers to participation in society, this picture is highly simplistic. “Online communities can be of obvious and immediate value, providing they give people the opportunity to learn, to share experiences and ideas, to build social capital and feelings of self-efficacy….but those who stand to benefit most from online communities are those who are least likely to use them,” said James. “Engagement is a huge issue,” emphasising the importance once again of physical, real world mediation and the complex skills required to interpret information online. In digital inclusion interventions, “contact must be sustained, tailored, responsive and, above all, human to have the desired effect.”

James called for a move beyond the familiar, straightforward questions about access to digital resources towards new understandings. How does digital inclusion increase social mobility, confidence or self-efficacy, for example? While these softer measures are considerably harder to measure, and less appealing in impact evaluations for funders and stakeholders, perhaps they represent some of the most important boundaries to address through digital inclusion practice. James argues that grassroots organizations and academia have much to learn from each other, with huge potential for collaboration to engage with such questions in the future.

Don’t forget the next seminar: OER, MOOCs and the promise of broadening access to education on Thursday 20th February, 5-6.30pm, at the Oxford Internet Institute. It promises to be a great event!

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