Digital inclusion is about addressing the barriers that prevent people from having the access, skills, motivation and trust to go confidently online and reap the benefits of the Internet that many take for granted. The Carnegie UK Trust describes digital inclusion as ‘a critical social justice issue of the 21st century’ and asks ‘Who is being left behind in this digital revolution?’

A recent Northern Ireland government report on digital inclusion (2017) states that 53% of over 65s are not making use of the Internet in Northern Ireland.  And a report by the Prince’s Trust, Slipping Through the Net (2016) dispels the myth that all young people can navigate the digital world with ease.

Many of us take for granted use of the Internet in our daily lives; staying in touch with family and friends, browsing for business and social purposes, paying bills, banking, transacting, sharing information, studying, playing games, booking events, or finding our way round whether it be online timetables or maps. The list goes on. Increasingly we use the Internet for smart homes and healthcare and the government agenda by degrees is becoming digital by default. For many, this use of the Internet translates into social connections, up-to-date knowledge, convenience, financial discounts, good money management, and improved well-being.

However, for those who don’t have access to a device connected to the Internet, or the skills to use it, or an understanding and awareness of what the digital world has to offer or have a fear of being scammed, it can translate into frustration, a lack of confidence and exclusion from the benefits the Internet has to offer. In the UK, 28% of those aged 60+ are offline with the main barriers to digital inclusion cited being lack of motivation, ‘too complicated’, and not knowing ‘where to start’. Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index 2018.

Advice NI, which provides leadership and services to its members in the Independent Advice Network across Northern Ireland to help ensure accessible advice services, has long recognised the value of digital inclusion as part of its work, and never more so than now in the face of the difficulties faced by vulnerable people applying for Universal Credit, a welfare benefit which is digital by default. 

Before the advent of Universal Credit, Advice NI sought to address the digital exclusion of those aged 65+ living in sheltered accommodation, through its Supporting Active Engagement (SAE) project, funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.  SAE includes the delivery, by trained volunteers, of a 10-12 week Rights4Seniors digital learning course which teaches seniors how to navigate the Internet so they can access trusted information about their rights and entitlements and know how and where to seek free, independent advice. The programme, which is in its sixth year, has been highly successful with an external evaluation stating,

The evaluation demonstrates SAE’s significant achievements… It also demonstrates the ‘fit’ between the project, and indeed Advice NI’s rights-based digital inclusion work more broadly, in relation to a number of strategic themes including digital inclusion of older people, tackling information poverty, promoting wellbeing and volunteering.’ (p33).

With the current funding coming to an end and keen to both sustain and develop the valuable work of the SAE programme, I began to look across the globe at international practice. I was keen to explore how community based education programmes overseas were addressing digital exclusion among older people in order to gain new perspectives and learning on policy and practice that could be applied in Northern Ireland. 

In 2018, funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I travelled to Australia and Japan to explore how digital inclusion learning programmes in both countries were enabling older people to reap the benefits of the Internet, e.g. reducing social isolation, improving independence, financial inclusion and better quality of life. Such research would build on Advice NI’s digital inclusion initiatives by bringing back ideas and knowledge that could inform proposals to implement key policy areas both regionally and across the UK. While there are many excellent digital initiatives in the UK aimed at encouraging older people to go online, they are often short or ‘taster’ sessions e.g. Silver Surfers Day. Programmes that offer longer term support help build confidence and motivation to ensure that older people are well placed to take advantage of digital systems and processes. This is particularly important as many of our government and other services move online and older people become even more at risk of exclusion.