Learning digital skills and closing the digital divide

Helen Milner headshotThe Covid-19 pandemic has both exposed a deep digital divide that has existed for decades and it exacerbated inequality by leaving millions of people cut off from essential services and support as well as human contact with loved ones. Digital inclusion can no longer be seen as a nice to have – it’s now a need to have.

Over the past 10 years, the Good Things Foundation helped over three million people to gain essential digital skills. It has helped thousands of people to gain the skills and confidence they need to embrace digital in their life and work. This also allows people to navigate digital environments which otherwise might have been inaccessible, such as accessing online health information. In the second of a series of Essential Digital Skills ‘Thought Pieces’, Group Chief Executive for the Good Things Group in the UK and Australia Helen Milner OBE explains more about its work.

Good Things Foundation is a UK based digital and social inclusion charity working with thousands of hyperlocal organisations in a movement to reach and support those people who are most excluded from society through being digitally excluded. Three years ago, we established a charity in Australia that has allowed us to deliver our mission there. We are also working with Google.org to take our model and our learning platform to other countries.

Learn My Way is our flagship online learning platform that can be used by individuals alone or supported by staff and volunteers in our partner community organisations to help people in their area to gain these skills. Learn My Way has been co-designed with people who have very low digital literacy and low learning confidence – this had led to the platform’s simplicity, common layout, use of clear accessible language, and text to speech for those who need it.

We campaign to fix the digital divide and work with Government, insisting that digital skills are essential for people’s lives and livelihoods as well as the economy of the UK and to address inequalities.

The context for basic digital skills

There is a digital divide in the UK, and it affects millions of people:

It most affects those who are vulnerable: older, disabled, poorer and lower skilled. It holds them back from realising opportunities and increases their social exclusion:

Those facing digital exclusion with low skills are less likely to seek support from the formal education and training sector, and less likely to be engaged with learning:

  • 62% of people with no qualifications engaged through the Future Digital Inclusion programme, delivered by Good Things Foundation and funded by the Department for Education, report having no positive learning experiences since leaving school,
  • 48% did not enjoy learning at school, and
  • Only 22% of those with no qualifications express interest in a qualification at point of engagement by a community digital inclusion hub. (Good Things Foundation [2018], Future Digital Inclusion: delivering basic digital skills for those in need).

People at the greatest distance from adult learning benefit from a community-based solution and existing face-to-face programmes for essential digital skills, while doing good work, will not address the national problem at sufficient scale or with sufficient urgency.

The recent Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index found that over three quarters of older people have very low digital engagement and skills. People with disabilities or poor education are also highlighted. But they also found upward trends and positive benefits by people who were connected online during the Covid-19 lockdown:

  • 87% said it helped them connect better with friends and family
  • 55% said it made them feel more part of a community, and
  • 44% said it helped them to manage physical and mental well-being.
  • three times more 70–79 year-olds have registered for online banking, and
  • 50% more are using the internet for learning.

Learn My Way

Based on the context in which we and our community partners operate, we developed Learn My Way and the learning model; one in which the people we’re supporting (‘learners’) need to see relatable, real life applications of the skills described by the Essential Digital Skills standards. This is necessary to ensure buy-in and it allows learners to embed the skills in their existing knowledge. A good example of this is with transactions, where the standard is detailed as “complete and submit a form as part of an online transaction”. Phrased in this way, it may not be obvious to learners how this skill could be applicable to day-to-day life. Our model encourages centres to frame this within the wide range of real-life applications – such as applying for a GP appointment, shopping online, or accessing benefits online.

Learn My Way provides support for learning at foundation and entry level, which sets us apart from other resources which focus on support for Level 1.

Basic digital skills learning also needs to be grounded in safe practice activities, where people can apply the skills that they have learnt. At Good Things Foundation, we do this through simulations in Learn My Way and we’ve found that these work successfully during testing with learners. Furthermore, our engagement with learners shows that effective practice has to be designed to accommodate accessibility needs and differences in literacy levels – for instance, we have screen reading functionalities built into Learn My Way which help those who have English as a second language, as well as those with literacy challenges.

We have identified several key characteristics for high-quality digital skills training. Firstly, learners need to experience progression – such as through the use of a rewarding language and demonstrations of new knowledge and skills. We often do this via a quiz, which allows us to assess learners’ knowledge and skills in each unit. Secondly, learners need to receive a breadth of content which covers all of the entry level Essential Digital Skills standards, with content reviewed regularly to ensure it is fit for purpose. This is done to ensure we support people’s real life digital needs.

A further characteristic is that there needs to be a consistent style of learning. Learn My Way provides an accessible style and structure to learn in, and when people are familiar with this, they feel comfortable in digital skills learning environments. One of the tools we use to improve familiarity and personalisation is our Planner tool, which is available on the EDS Community of Practice. This provides a personal, engaging start to the learning journey. Learners respond to 13 short questions and this produces an individualised list of courses for the person.

Finally, and crucially, all learners need to enjoy the process of learning – and be rewarded for doing so. This includes receiving positive and affirming feedback for progression, and we’re also looking to explore methods of ‘gamification’ and a badging system.

Our development journey

Although we have used Learn My Way with over one million people, we are constantly reviewing our programmes to deliver the best possible learning experiences. We’re currently working on the next generation of Learn My Way. We will be expanding our work on personalised journeys for learners to include ‘playlists’, guided learning pathways for individualisation and the ‘My Learning’ area, which will keep a record of certificates, assessment results, and areas for personal reflection. Meanwhile, we are reviewing and developing the skills-for-work and job-seeking sections of our offer and will be including tools for online interviews and remote office working.

We will also be taking greater steps to upskill tutors and volunteers to support the people who use Learn My Way and our other programmes. This is something that is particularly needed as we’ve shifted our offer of blended support from exclusively face-to-face delivery, to include remote delivery, via online chat tools (like Zoom) and phone. We’re providing CPD through training in remote support tools, such as Zoom and Teams, as well as how to structure and deliver training remotely. Our training webinars for this so far have been oversubscribed, so there’s clear demand to expand this provision. We also offer a Digital Champions course to upskill tutors and volunteers in helping people learn digital skills.

Blended online and hyperlocal learning

Our learning platform is embedded into the practice of our community partners. The role of informal community learning settings is often undervalued; we want to see a greater emphasis on informal learning environments to build skills and progression. Our research Shocks, Knocks, and Skill Building Blocks, which looks at how to build work skills resilience into digital literacy, has shown that informal environments allow learners to feel more comfortable and can feel more inviting than formal education routes, such as a further education college. As such, there needs to be a greater recognition of the role that informal learning through community organisations can play, without undermining – or underfunding – the important work that formal structures provide. Indeed, we need a blend of approaches in order to reach people where they are and guarantee that every community has a trusted local place they can turn to for digital skills support.

We need to reduce pressure on learners to meet specific targets or qualifications. We find that most people who approach our community partners don’t say they want to “learn digital skills” in general, but rather their learning is on-demand and they come to solve a specific issue. As such, being pushed to reach a specific qualification is off-putting for some people and may discourage them from seeking further digital skills support. At the same time, however, we want to see that learners’ progression is monitored, recognised, and rewarded.

The deep digital divide that exists in the UK and around the world needs to be addressed. Learning very basic digital skills can be that foundation to further learning, jobs, and social mobility.

About the author: Helen Milner OBE has over 30 years’ experience of working in and leading organisations creating and delivering education over and about the internet. She is the Group Chief Executive for Good Things Group in the UK and Australia. Helen was awarded an OBE for services to digital inclusion in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. In 2017 she won the title of Digital Leader of the Year (UK) and was named by Computer Weekly as the 14th most influential person in UK IT in 2020; and in 2021 won a Special Achievement Award for her work in Diversity and Inclusion. Working with the British Parliament, Helen was a member of the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy and an Advisor on Digital Engagement to the Public Accounts Committee. She is a Board Member of FutureDotNow.

About this blog: This is the second in a series of Essential Digital Skills ‘Thought Pieces’ intended to stimulate discussion and dialogue around the development of effective practice in the delivery of digital skills to those who are digitally excluded. They are part of the ETF’s CPD programme for those delivering and preparing to deliver the new Essential Digital Skills Qualifications (EDSQs). You can access all of the pieces via the Essential Digital Skills CPD programme page.

Contributors come from a range of backgrounds including current practitioners and those with responsibility for supporting teachers’ CPD, as well as advocates of adult education in different contexts, both formal and informal.

These pieces aim to explore how practitioners in a range of settings are helping to inform quality standards by working collaboratively to test out new pedagogical strategies and digital resources.

Thinking around digital skills delivery has been very significantly affected by the impact of Covid-19, and contributors address the challenge there has been for teachers to upskill rapidly for remote delivery. Currently, there is no established framework setting out the features of ‘effective’ delivery of digital skills online, but these pieces help us to go some way in understanding what works in different contexts.

Comments on this, and the other pieces in the series, are welcomed on Twitter using the hashtag #EDSThoughts.

The ETF does not necessarily endorse any of the strategies, tools or approaches mentioned in these pieces.