Urgent need to fix digital divide
Public and private sector leaders call for action to help people left behind by an increasingly digital society
Stark findings in Accenture’s new report on Ireland’s digital divide reveal that at least a quarter of the population is excluded from an increasingly digital society because of socioeconomic reasons. Another cause for concern is that the report, ‘Bridging the Gap: Ireland’s Digital Divide’, was carried out pre Covid-19 and the research suggests the pandemic will exacerbate the problem, adding fuel to what the report describes as a “two-speed digital economy” which risks leaving large groups of people behind.
“As the pandemic accelerates digital adoption, the digital divide is likely to widen further for people who don’t feel they have the skills needed to participate,” warned Vicky Godolphin, a managing director and the Digital Divide sponsor at Accenture in Ireland. “A third of respondents felt that they just didn’t have the confidence to improve their digital literacy, so we need to build their trust and confidence in learning.”
The report findings struck a chord with the new Minister for Further and Higher Education, Simon Harris. “If we don’t improve, social exclusion and class divides will harden as more activity moves online,” he said. “We must now work to narrow the divide in Ireland and lead the way by making digital an equaliser, rather than an inhibitor.”
Breaking down barriers
Heydi Foster-Breslin, chief executive of non-profit social enterprise An Cosán, Ireland's largest community education organisation, worries that the digitally disenfranchised are being stigmatised. “If you are on the other side of the digital divide you are often made to feel embarrassed. It is the responsibility of those of us in the education system who can deliver the skills, to find a way to break down the barriers,” she said. “We need to ensure people know they are entitled to have the opportunity, the welcoming space and the necessary resources they need to learn, live and gain employment in a digitized world.”
There is no shortage of ideas on how the digitally excluded can be exposed to the vital benefits of embracing technology, or the educational opportunities to understand it. Given the right supports and resources, Foster-Breslin believes An Cosán, which offers adult education paths to women and communities from disadvantaged areas, is perfectly positioned to help. “If people have negative experiences of prior learning, if they are living with stress or trauma, if they are a person living in direct provision, they are likely to need more support and counselling so they can be empowered to engage with learning. If they are living in poverty they must be provided with the technology, which is now essential to begin and maintain their learning journey,” she said.
Education is the key
Foster-Breslin has no doubt that education is the key to closing the gap and argues that in order to be transformational we must act now and give people the support they need. This means not only providing them with devices and improving access to the internet, but also empowering educators to produce digital content that is innovative and useful.
Accenture’s report also points to education as the way forward and highlights the challenges of making it effective. “Access to local resources and local courses was cited as a key obstacle for people,” said Vicky Godolphin. “Education is a human right, and in an increasingly digital society we have a moral obligation to equip all our citizens with the right digital skills.”
Although online services like banking have seen a surge in activity since lockdown, Gavin Kelly, CEO Retail Ireland at Bank of Ireland, shares Heydi Foster-Breslin’s concerns that large swathes of the population are still uncomfortable with online engagement. A fear of technology is pervasive, according to Kelly, and something all stakeholders in digital services need to address.
“Most human beings need a bit of help and there’s almost an embarrassment to ask for it when embracing digital,” he said. “All of us need to start building the concept of assistance into our digital products, so that customers get a confidence that can grow over time,” he said. “In banking, we’re increasingly seeing a role for branch staff in helping people to use our digital services.”
Building stakeholder alliances
A former adviser to the Irish Government, Lord David Puttnam is a passionate advocate for educating people in digital skills. He believes Covid-19 has presented Ireland with a unique opportunity. “It’s forced us down a digital avenue and given us the excuse to see what works digitally and what works better face-to-face,” he said. “It’s presented us with a lab test where I’m sure the results will point to a blended version of the two.”
He describes it as a Darwinian moment, where a new truth reveals itself and changes everything. “In the area of education and communication, there is no going back. The opportunity is extraordinary for this country right now. I’m just terrified that we may not take full advantage of it,” he said.
Vicky Godolphin shares this sense of urgency and is encouraged by the consensus that the ‘Bridging the Gap: Ireland’s Digital Divide’ report has elicited from diverse groups, which bodes well for its recommendations for stakeholder alliances to come together and bridge the divide. A national framework is identified as the best way forward, a closely aligned ecosystem that can provide a consistent approach to closing the gap.
“It’s about generating more sustainable and scalable solutions, rather than the myriad of initiatives we have now that are complimentary but sometimes overlapping,” said Godolphin. “No single organisation can solve it on their own. But together we can start to bridge the gap and create many more opportunities for Irish citizens, and at the same time position Ireland as a leader in the digital world.”
To read the full report and for more information on ‘Bridging the Gap; Ireland’s Digital Divide’ go to Accenture.com/DigitalDivide