Due to the Covid-19 crisis our lives have brutally shifted into digital. We use the Internet to learn, to work, to communicate and to socialize. However, some groups are digitally excluded and although governments are trying their best to fast-track solutions, providing the digitally excluded with laptops alone will not suffice.
Teachers are sending pupils homework via online platforms, professors are recording their lectures online, employers have meetings using Teams or Zoom, people communicate with family and friends using WhatsApp or FaceTime, delivery services can’t cope with the online buying spree and banks have pushed us towards online banking only. In short, Covid-19 has radically rushed us into the digital life, and this with a velocity many of us cannot follow. For some the adaptation was not that difficult. Teleworking from home has multiple advantages, at least if the kids are grown up and autonomous. It is surprising that from a technological point of view the networks, services, educational platforms, streaming services, collaborative software spaces, etc. were already in place and did more or less scale with the exploding demand. The techno-utopians are already preaching the end of the classroom, the end of the office and thank god the end of traffic jams.
However, not all were prepared for the digital as the new normal within society. This is not a surprise. Long before the lockdown was implemented, part of our population was digitally excluded or had serious difficulties handling digital technology and applications. Statistics differ among European countries, but not all citizens have access to a laptop, tablet or smartphone or are connected to the Internet. In 2019 11% of Flemish households did not have access to the Internet. Among low income households the percentage rises to 34%. And even if households officially have a device with access to the Internet, the Covid-19 lockdown has learned that we should be more careful in our definition of ‘devices with an internet connection’. A smartphone is a wonderful device to surf the web, watch movies, play games and read newspapers. It is less suited to write essays and do your homework. On top of that, there is a difference in device rich households where every member of the family has access to multiple devices and device poor households where multiple people have to share a single device. To illustrate, teachers in Flanders/Belgium report that in some classes in disadvantaged urban areas up to one third of pupils do not have access to a computer to follow online classes. This is fiercely problematic and not only calls but demands further examination.
The dire need for computers or laptops in households during the lockdown is exemplified by the rush to get devices to pupils in many European countries. In Flanders/Belgium the Minister of Education launched the Digital for Youth project distributing 10.000 laptops to pupils in secondary education without access. Individual cities such as Ghent and Leuven launched initiatives at the local level, signaling that the demand far outweighed the offer. Digital For Youth has in the meantime distributed more than 12.500 computers. Telecom operators have offered customers extra volume in mobile data and have opened up their networks for pupils without internet access. The Minister of Wellbeing and Health has released substantial new budgets to buy devices for youth work and youngsters with disabilities in care facilities. Many social organisations and local communities have followed suit with smaller initiatives.
These are all wonderful projects, that on the short term, provide some relief for these specific groups. However, a whole range of vulnerable groups are not addressed. Current initiatives focus on institutionalised and easily identifiable groups. Youth in assisted living, foreign—often migrant—youth in intensive foreign language classes, youth in asylum centers, students at university who do not have access to the internet at home, are not yet provided for. As already indicated the demand outweighs the offer by a multitude. 11% of Flemish households who do not have access to the internet in absolute terms translates into several hundreds of thousands. Questions arise how this will affect schooling after the Covid-19 lock-down. All across Europe pupils and students are moving—slowly—back to school again and in most cases they will still receive parts of their education via online platforms. However, this form of hybrid schooling in digital as the new normal will require long term access to equipment and the internet.
Yet access is not sufficient in itself. Not having access to a device and the internet is only part of the equation of digital exclusion. Two other aspects are of fundamental importance in the autonomous use of digital technology: 1) digital skills and competences, 2) networks of support.
First, in Flanders/Belgium only 1 in 5 people indicate that they have the necessary digital skills and competences to function in a digital society. This is a general figure for the whole society. However, we know that a substantial number of young people struggle with digital technology and applications, especially young people from disadvantaged communities. The latest Digimeter-report highlights the rise of technology fatalism, also among youngsters, and a growing rejection of the use of technologies because innovation is moving too fast, it’s too much and too difficult. The underlying reasons are complex. An important aspect is that digital competences and skills are acquired, not so much through schools, but mainly through personal networks and informal ways of learning.
Second, networks of support help people to cope with digital problems and use. These are often informal networks, of family members, friends or colleagues at school, youth movement or work. However, research shows that people with low levels of digital skills are often part of social networks with low levels of digital skills.
During the Covid-19 lockdown a group of individuals—amongst whom the authors Ilse Mariën and Leo Van Audenhove—established the Taskforce e-Inclusion. The Taskforce is a collaboration between public institutions, local government, and non-profit organizations, that have a long-term experience in working on e-inclusion. Its mission is to combat social isolation of digitally excluded citizens, due to the Covid-19 crisis. It does so by fast-tracking: 1) access to digital devices and applications, 2) initiatives focusing on digital competences and skills, 3) development of remote support services. The Taskforce has a coordinating role and works on concrete actions, on advocacy and on public policy. In respect to the latter we call on the Flemish and Federal Government to develop a more coherent policy in relation to digital inclusion with specific attention for those at danger of being left behind.
The Taskforce consists of: imec-SMIT Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Mediawijs, UC Leuven-Limburg, Link in de Kabel, Digidak, iDrops, Federatie van Basiseducatie, Seniornet Vlaanderen, LINC vzw, Stad Kortrijk, VVSG, VOCVO, Digipolis Gent, WeTechCare, Modem Thomas More, Saskia Van Uffelen-Digital Champion en Beego.
 Asmar, A., Van Audenhove, L., Mariën, I. (2020) Social Support for Digital Inclusion. Towards a Typology of Social Support Patterns, Social Inclusion, Vol.8, No2, https://www.cogitatiopress.com/socialinclusion/article/view/2627
Leo Van Audenhove
iMEC-SMIT-Vrije Universtiteit Brussel
University of the Western Cape