Digital inclusion strategy necessary for Australia’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups

A digital inclusion strategy is necessary to achieve proper post-secondary education and training for Australia’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities and groups.

That is the conclusion of Community Colleges Australia (CCA) following initial analysis of data from its survey of members’ experience with online learning resulting from Coronavirus shutdowns and social distancing requirements.

“Across CCA’s members, on average just over half of all learners did not have good access to relevant technologies to engage with online learning. In addition, young people were often not able to use their technologies for learning purposes effectively even when they had access,” said Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of CCA.

Online learning is far from a panacea, numerous experts and studies around the world have shown. “Ensuring digital equity is crucial in this tough time. Not all the teachers and students have access to all digital devices, internet, and Wi-Fi. Unavailability of proper digital tools, no internet connections, or iffy Wi-Fi connections can cause a lot of trouble due to which many students might lose out learning opportunities…. Steps must be taken to reduce the digital divide,” writes Shivangi Dhawan, in one of the most quoted academic articles last year.

“Although internet infrastructure is available to almost all Australians, more than 2.5 million remain offline,” says the 2020 Australian Digital Inclusion Index. Those at particular risk are mobile-only users, people in low-income households, people aged 65+, and people who did not complete secondary school.

Australian Government Digital Economy Strategy

Last week, the Australian Government released its Digital Economy Strategy and outlined a $1.2 billion investment to deliver a modern digital economy to drive our nation’s future prosperity. The Good Things Foundation – an international digital inclusion not-for-profit leading digital inclusion in Australia through its community partnership program – welcomed the Commonwealth’s vision of creating a leading digital economy and society, but expressed serious reservations that the Strategy has missed the opportunity to close the digital divide and ensure a 100% digitally included nation.

“All future jobs will need basic digital skills. While it is great to see the Government invest in the technology workforce, no additional funding has been allocated to make sure everyone has the essential digital skills they need to find and maintain work as Australia undergoes this rapid digital transformation,” says Jess Wilson, National Director Good Things Foundation Australia.

In its Federal Budget Pre-Submission, Good Things Foundation Australia called for investment in community-based digital skills programs to ensure that those most vulnerable of being left behind during the rapid transition to the digital economy are supported.

New South Wales Tech Savvy Seniors Program – A Digital Literacy Success Story

People aged 65+ are one of the least digitally included groups in Australia, the Digital Inclusion Index shows, with one in five older Australians not using the internet. Two factors exacerbate these risks: they are “more likely to live alone and thereby rely on the types of public social contact restricted by the COVID-19 measures”; and many have become particularly vigilant in reducing their physical social contact “because of their heightened vulnerability to COVID-19.”

In New South Wales, the Tech Savvy Seniors Program is delivered by community colleges (adult and community education providers) and libraries (see list of participants here). The Program delivers low-cost digital literacy training to seniors so they can develop the skills and confidence to access information and services online, with training in computers, tablets and smart phones to help seniors to stay connected with their families, friends and communities.

A (pre-COVID) Tech Savvy Seniors evaluation report concluded that the Program was highly successful, as it had “provided a genuine opportunity for seniors to improve their digital skills and literacy,” with almost 9 in 10 participants reporting very positive experiences. The evaluation found “that for every $1 invested in Tech Savvy Seniors, it yields approximately $6.78 in social value.”

“Tech Savvy Seniors is just one example of how small amounts of government and corporate partnership funding – in this case from Telstra – can make an enormous difference to the lives of Australians,” said Dr Don Perlgut, CEO of CCA.

“Community Colleges Australia believes the Commonwealth Government’s Digital Economy Strategy is a strong start, but must be complemented by an expanded community-based inclusion strategy to achieve full success,” said Dr Perlgut.

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