A mantra that 'X number of years' worth of digital transformation was achieved in weeks or months' has become a common refrain amongst technology service providers and enterprise CIOs and CTOs. The Coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly spearheaded a great deal of technology-led change, but the enforced isolation it led to has also revealed the sheer scale of digital poverty that exists even in the most advanced economies.
Digital access issues cannot be seen as just a sad by-product of the pandemic. Boosting digital skills and access will protect the economy, reduce social exclusion and increase health and productivity. So concerned are the UK's CIO and CTO community members that many are backing a new movement that aims to inject digital poverty policy and debate into the country's social and political agenda.
When schools closed in March 2020 and again in January 2021, education left the classroom and moved online. For many children and teachers, however, the cost of decent devices and internet connection put them at a severe disadvantage. UK telecoms regulator Ofcom found that nearly 20% of children did not have consistent access to a suitable device on which to take part in home-learning, and 27% of children living with financial vulnerability had poor access to a device. These households had to share devices across children of different ages throughout the school day.
Education body the Sutton Trust found that only five percent of teachers in state education believed their pupils have access to a suitable device for remote learning. With the pandemic showing few signs of ending, remote learning will continue to be a vital source of education for the foreseeable future. The same Sutton Trust research finds that 84% of teachers predict that the attainment gap for pupils increased over the lockdown period. With the UK, like much of the western world, struggling with a skills shortage, particularly in technology, this is creating a serious problem for further down the road.
Shining a light on austerity
The pandemic's positive impact is that it has focused the spotlight on the damage to education and society that austerity and digital exclusion have created. The chasm between the technology access available to children and teachers and those of us in the enterprise technology sector shocked Freddie Quek, CTO for Times Higher Education, a data company with a 50-year history as a publisher in higher education and author of a renowned and respected education rankings systems. Quek says:
The public library was the answer in the past. But, this is a solvable problem; the UK is the fifth richest country in the world.
Quek adds that as a parent with kids that are, in his words, fairly privileged and have a father that knows a bit about IT, they and their school still struggled. The CTO was not alone; digital poverty shocked international rugby union star player Maro Itoje, who commented:
It is often said you judge a society on how they treat the vulnerable. Recent lockdowns have widened and exacerbated the negative consequences of the digital divide for the most vulnerable children in our society. This has the potential to have real and worrying ramifications on their life chances. The gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots' will widen considerably if nothing is done to address this problem. The digital divide in this country poses a real threat to our children, and together we must do all we can to help address it.
Itoje would go on to form the Digital Divide campaign in partnership with his team Saracens and US-headquartered financial information provider Bloomberg to provide schools with equipment. His campaign, alongside that of fellow sportsman Marcus Rashford to provide free school meals, did much to demonstrate the shocking levels of poverty in the UK and how families and the educational foundations of the nation were carrying an unfair burden of society's ills. This was further exemplified when the then Conservative Party Minister for Education Gavin Williamson mistook Itoje for Rashford following a meeting about Itoje's campaign to deal with the digital divide.
Williamson's tenure as Education Minister will not have helped the attainment of students — with or without access to laptops — having caused GCSE and A-Level exam confusion and chaos for two years running. As footballer Rashford said in an open letter to the government:
This is about humanity. Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can't, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves.
Joined-up thinking and action
Quek and Itoje share a common goal, to deal with the digital divide, and both the CTO and rugby player have taken action. Quek says:
It all started when I was approached by IT leaders asking, can you help me donate computers to three schools in the North East, the most deprived part of the UK.
He went on to form Joining the Dots, as the CTO realized that across the various networking groups within business technology leadership, there was a chorus and desire to bridge the digital divide. Focused on the one aim, the initiative brought together CIO groups such as UK IT Leaders, a forum founded by tech leader Dave Jones, HotTopics, a networking community for marketing and technology leaders, the Horizon CIO Network (disclosure: formed and chaired by the author) as well as the British Computer Society, the Charity IT Leaders forum and many others. This creates a large community, says Quek:
We have more than 130,000 members from thirteen tech leaders communities working to combat digital exclusion. We want to socialize what we all should know in order to mobilise those who can and want to help.
Joining the Dots, as the name suggests, realizes that there is lots of good work going on within forums as well as official groups, and that if all of these groups are joined up then the impact will be greater. Quek explains:
There are so many initiatives out there. In January 2021, we counted more than 70, but to close the gap we need to do something a bit more holistic.
We all started from the most obvious place, which was to donate some spare equipment. But we now need to go beyond that, and that means we need to be a bit more joined-up and have some serious thoughts about solving the problem in a more sustainable and strategic way. To be able to participate in the digital world we have to consider the joining up of providing devices, data, support, skills, opportunity, cybersafety and content.
Children without access to education and online learning triggered a response from CIOs and CTOs, but as Quek and peers soon realised, digital poverty goes wider than the nation's youth. Digital exclusion at all levels has to be addressed.
Quek's joined-up approach played a role in the formation of the Digital Poverty Alliance. Launched in October 2021, the Digital Poverty Alliance aims to end digital exclusion by 2030. The alliance states that it is a place for everyone, be they in government, corporation, professional bodies or grassroots communities and individuals looking to address this issue. Co-chair Lord Jim Knight, a former education minister, says:
It has come together as a coalition of like-minds that share a passion for dealing with unfairness.
Members of the alliance include: We are Digital, a digital inclusion training body, the British Retail Consortium, Tech UK, the national IT trade association, Ofcom, Teach First, the education social enterprise, Digital Inclusion Wales, Good Things Foundation, a digital inclusion charity, UK Committee for UNICEF and the Housing Association Charitable Trust, with backing from electronics retailerDixons Carphone. The Digital Poverty Alliance is targeting its actions at those aged between five and 16 and 16 to 25-year-olds, as well as the vulnerable and those with protected characteristics. Actions fall into five categories:
- Device & Connectivity (Affordability, Data, Infrastructure, Circular Economy)
- Access (Accessibility, Availability, User Centred Design)
- Capability (Skills, Education and Understanding)
- Motivation (Awareness, Relevance, Repetition, Right time and Place, Consistent and tested messaging)
- Support (Enablers & Influencers, Technical, Educational & Multichannel Inc. local, face to face, digital, telephony and of course platforms such as YouTube)
Knight says the role of the Digital Poverty Alliance will be to reimagine the public realm and ensure that everyone in society has access to information, empowerment, cheaper bills and education. The former Labour MP says this includes working with the Conservative Party government that has been in power since 2010. He explains:
Governments can only do so much, and one of the biggest obstacles is the hesitancy of the public. There are still 10 million people that are not online, and it is often about a behavioural problem rather than a cost and access.
One of the things we would love to see, as a legacy of the pandemic, is a rethink of how we do things. So a collective rethink on how we face globalisation, technology change, climate change, migration and conflict.
Lofty aims perhaps, but as the pandemic revealed, digital touches each and every one of these issues. Those suffering digital exclusion will have no recourse to information and action.
Like Quek, I, too, am a parent with relatively privileged daughters and they have a mother who knows more than a bit about technology. What really struck me during the lockdowns was the contrast with others in our community — everyone in the household had a device from which to work and learn from and there was ample bandwidth. But just a couple of doors down in our normal market town street, two teachers struggled to deliver lessons on the second rate network provided by a major and formerly nationalized carrier. Peers to my daughters attended lessons via a mobile phone, and no doubt learned the limitations of remote learning using a handset.
When Quek approached the CIO community and me for help, it was heartwarming, in difficult times, to see the CIO and CTO community swing into action.
Looking ahead, digital poverty has to be dealt with. The UK faces a skills shortage and a productivity issue. If sections of society are digitally excluded this will only exacerbate these problems and therefore increase other national issues such as a brain drain, the supposed North/South divide and polarization — all of which reduce competitiveness and, taken from a business lens, reduce profitability and innovation.