Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Social inclusion and digital inclusion through community centres I came up with this model of social inclusion through community centres while I was doing some work on social impact for UK Online last year. It's based on the experience of workers using ICT and other resources to support residents in Shipley, West Yorkshire, and on interviews with residents themselves. The main point that it leads on to is that the ICT can fit more or less anywhere in the process, as a very significant accelerator; but it is not the fundamental requirement nor the main focus unless the individual makes it so. I'm reminded of this by a recent flurry of interest in how to shape provision of ICT in low-income areas. I first went to Shipley in about 1999, to find out about their pioneering online project which took ISDN connections from Shipley College into community centres to support basic skills courses. It was, and still is, high quality community-based learning, with sensitive support provided by committed and highly experienced community workers. Around that time I was on one of the government's 'Policy Action Teams' ('PAT15' on 'access to IT') and the Shipley project was among a chosen few round the country which helped us understand the role of the technologies in the quality of life of people who experience exclusion. What they offered gave texture because we engaged local people to talk to us about it at their pace and in their terms. Now the government has released several reports about 'digital inclusion' and the social impact of their strategic promotion of the technologies, and it makes a curious impression. The two I've looked at have clearly been expensive exercises, and together they provide an important new impetus to the agenda, acknowledging that the relation between social exclusion and digital exclusion is subtle and complex. But neither report seems to add much to what was known six or seven years ago. For example, Ipsos MORI were commissioned for a research study on digital inclusion and social impact, and their report notes among the conclusions: Partnerships with local community groups and organisations were key in reaching the target audiences and delivering holistic provision addressing multiple issues Working with hard to reach audiences involves long-term relationships with partners and individuals Taking technology out to local, familiar and safe environments was essential to reach new audiences The flexibility to adapt the curriculum to participants' needs and interests was vital in engaging and holding their interest Informal peer to peer learning and formal volunteering were key to the sustainability of the projects, and to the progression and self-esteem of participants. All very valuable points. All put across clearly in the early work carried out under the aegis of PAT 15, before 2002. In those days we didn't have the budget for large-scale systematic studies (I think the first report was done for £2,500) but we compensated by sounding-out our findings across the community sector. And while the MORI report includes much-needed quantitative material, some of it is crying out for...

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