Designing for the Digital Divide

Today saw the release of the 2017 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, which can be downloaded from the Telstra Sales Portal Digital Inclusion website. The report had some positive, although expected, conclusions in that digital inclusion is increasing right across the board, which is the good news. What caught my eye however were the specific mentions of the sociodemographic groups which are the most digitally excluded across the country, specifically:

“…people in low income households, people aged 65+, people with a disability, people who did not complete secondary school, Indigenous Australians, and people not in paid employment.”

These groups represent some significant cohorts of the people who could most benefit from access to flexible Higher Education, and yet they remain the ones hampered by the highest levels of digital exclusion. The societal groups who could get the most from an equitable Higher Education system are also by-and-large the ones with the highest barriers to engaging with education through this medium. Not good.

Why is this of so much interest right now in Australian Higher Education? Because as all Universities attempt to drive harder into the online delivery space, they must also acknowledge that those who most need the benefits of a publicly funded tertiary education system are also those who may not fit the popular narrative of the online learner. What do I mean by the popular narrative? The easiest way to get a feel for this is to do a Google image search for ‘student learning online’ – you’ll get the kind of images shown in the image below. Well dressed, under thirty, able-bodied, sitting in clean, light, urban, space-filled environments, and with bonus points for using a Macbook Pro and/or sporting a sweet pair of Sennheiser cans…

This is what the internet sees as an online learner

Whilst the marketing reasons for such imagery are obvious in terms of creating aspirational emotive responses, it is critical that those who are designing online experiences remember that in a context where access to Higher Education is deemed an important investment in society as a whole then these images do not represent the audience we should be primarily designing for, at least in social justice terms, if not pure volume. What does this mean in practice? Torpedoing the trope of the ‘Digital Native’ would be a good start, and designing from a baseline where students are not assumed to have unfettered access to online technology, let alone a sound knowledge of how to use it with ease. Beyond this, there are plenty of others who have written about designing for diversity, whether that diversity be socioeconomic, physical, cultural – whatever. One I particularly like is this one by @MissEmmaMcG, but there are plenty of other resources out there if one cares to look. Granted, good design principles alone won’t conquer the Digital Divide, but they can at least help prevent creating any more barriers than the ones that already exist for people with low digital inclusion.

It would be wonderful to see more Government policy that puts incentives (probably financial) in place to drive Higher Education institutions to focus design and support geared at these already disadvantaged groups, rather than designing for (again quoting from the report) the:

“wealthier, younger, more educated, and urban Australians (who) enjoy much greater digital inclusion.”

In short, our social responsibility as a sector goes beyond simply offering education online, it should also include being active participants in designing an online education system which helps to lessen the impact of the ‘Digital Divide’ for those who need it the most.

Footnote: Plenty of good stuff going on in the Twitterverse on this topic today relating to the release of the report, including information on the newly formed Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance – looking forward to keeping an eye on this one.