Future Digital Inclusion: What the background research tells us
14 Jun 2016 |Written by James Richardson
The last year has produced some of the most striking research ever conducted into digital exclusion in the UK. Ipsos MORI’s report on Basic Digital Skills highlighted the scale of the problem still facing digital inclusion practitioners: 12.6 million adults still do not possess all of the five Basic Digital Skills required to take full advantage of the power of digital technology, with stark difference in skill levels across income bands, social grades and geographic regions. And although Ofcom’s annual Adults’ Media Use & Attitudes survey recorded an ongoing rise in access to the internet, qualitative analysis suggests that the growing number of people who only have access through their smartphone are unable to carry out the online activities that will bring real benefit.
Good Things Foundation’s own research during 2015-16 has been concerned with the high levels of social exclusion among UK online centres learners, and how digital skills and digital solutions can be incorporated into broad-spectrum support models that bring about lasting positive change for individuals and communities in need.
To supplement internal data on the impact of the Future Digital Inclusion programme, Good Things Foundation commissioned independent research agency Just Economics to carry out two closely-related research studies:
- A Social Return on Investment analysis of the social value of Future Digital Inclusion-funded activities.
- A broader study assessing the activities of UK online centres and the value added by support provided by Good Things Foundation.
Taken together, the findings from these reports provide a detailed picture of how digital skills training is being embedded in community support programmes by a wide range of UK online centres.
- Digital exclusion remains a massive problem in the UK. Even though the overall number of internet users continues to increase, data suggest that those who would benefit most from the internet do not have the skills or access to the right devices to complete essential online tasks, including finding work and accessing government services.
- Digital exclusion continues to correlate strongly with other forms of social exclusion such as low income, unemployment, disability and poor educational achievement. In order to effectively overcome digital exclusion, practitioners and policymakers need to address the complicated, interconnected needs of the digitally excluded population.
- UK online centres provide a powerful model for engaging digitally excluded people, through location in deprived communities, outreach activities, and learning opportunities which are informal, flexible and complemented by broad-spectrum support services such as job clubs, benefits advice and healthy living provision.
- Infrastructure support services provided by Good Things Foundation add significant value to UK online centres’ activity, reflected in more than 70% of Future Digital Inclusion-funded targets being met by centres which do not receive direct grant funding.
- The Future Digital Inclusion programme generates significant social return on investment for UK online centres learners and central government: a total of £4.43 of for every £1 invested, or £13.4m against an annual investment of £3m. The value to government alone is £4.5m annually.
Just Economics found that UK online centres play a vital role in engaging digitally and socially excluded people. Although centre support models are diverse, they identified key ingredients to effective digital inclusion practice that can be found in different centres across the network:
- Allowing learners to attend the centre as long as they need to and to work at their own pace, with a curriculum tailored to individual need. Informality, friendliness and a social component to learning were an essential part of this process.
- Providing a range of support services to meet the additional needs of digital skills learners, including benefits advice, information on self-management of health and personal finances, employability skills and ESOL.
- Delivering outreach classes in known and trusted community venues and learners' homes in order to engage those who would not feel comfortable attending a centre or other learning environment.
- Providing a high level of tailored one-to-one support, that focuses on confidence and ‘soft skills’; in large part this is made possible by the recruitment and training of digital champion volunteers.
These effective engagement strategies help centres to progress learners from Basic Digital Skills to further learning and a range of positive outcomes, including employment, volunteering and further learning. Just Economics paid particular attention to learners’ progression to accredited Further Education, a relatively poorly understood area. Their findings suggested that many UK online centres play a crucial bridging role that helps people move from exclusion from and disengagement with education, to studying towards qualifications that will make a real difference to their life chances. Two key models of progression were identified:
- Formal partnerships with FE providers. This included supporting learners entering a formal FE environment for the first time, and hosting outreach provision delivered by local FE providers. In some cases these purposes were combined, with outreach classes designed to encourage learners to start attending an FE college.
- In-house provision of FE, with clear and well-supported progression routes for informal learning, including Basic Digital Skills. This was especially important where no FE options other were available, either because travel to the nearest college was prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, or when cultural barriers meant that colleges were not a suitable environment.
More than 70% of the people who receive support through the Future Digital Inclusion programme do so at UK online centres which do not receive direct grant funding. Just Economics found that these centres are able to achieve such high levels of digital inclusion activity through the infrastructure support provided by Good Things Foundation, with research study participants describing how their membership of the UK online centres helped them to engage learners, deliver digital skills and provide progression pathways. Specific benefits of network membership included:
- Supported access to the Learn My Way digital skills learning platform, including the ability to record and access learners' demographic and progression data. Learn My Way was described as flexible and easily accessible to new learners, and providing a wide range of learning topics with a strong focus on job-seeking skills. Centres valued its informality, practicality, and the way it can be tailored to individual learners' needs. Just Economics also also found that centres supporting ESOL learners benefited from the online resources developed through the English My Way programme, funded by DCLG and delivered alongside Future Digital Inclusion in 44 UK online centres.
- Being a visible part of the UK online centres network, especially through marketing and branding collateral provided free of charge by Good Things Foundation. Centres said that the network membership raised their profile in the community, leading to higher rates of referrals, word-of-mouth signposting and drop-in. The annual Get Online Week campaign was widely subscribed to, and described as an effective way of engaging new learners and partners in digital inclusion activities.
- The support, advice and training provided by Good Things Foundation around learning tools, volunteer management, marketing, partnerships and campaigns, which centres said helped them to raise their profile, deliver digital skills effectively, and provide the best possible service to learners.
UK online centres’ broad-spectrum, community-level support for socially excluded people, boosted by infrastructure support from Good Things Foundation, provides a powerful model that generates significant value. Just Economics’ Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis of the Future Digital Inclusion programme placed monetary values on non-traded outcomes - such as improved health and skills - and measured the return on investment for two main groups who benefit from the programme: UK online centres learners, and the UK government. They concluded that the value generated by Future Digital Inclusion far exceeds investment in the programme. Key findings from Just Economics’ analysis include:
- The Future Digital Inclusion programme achieves an SROI ratio of 4.43:1 - in other words, £4.43 of value is generated for every £1 invested. This represents a social return on investment of £13.4m against an investment of £3m in 2015-16. 88% of the benefit accrues to UK online centres learners and the remaining 12% to government; the social return on investment for government alone is 1:1.5, equivalent to £4.5m of value being generated from a £3m investment.
- Learners improved health and self-management of health problems through the use of online channels led to 81,000 health service visits being avoided. Just Economics estimated the value of improvements to learners’ health and wellbeing at £7.7m.
- The value to learners of progression into and within employment, and employment-related activities such as vocational training, was calculated at £2.5m, £1.4m of which accrued to disabled learners.
- Other economics benefits for learners included cost savings by transacting online, and saving money through online shopping and price comparison websites, valued at £800k.
- Value to government was generated mainly through reduced benefit bills, increased productivity and increased tax receipts, as 7% of learners moved into employment. Another significant contributor was cost savings arising from learners’ increased use of online rather than traditional face-to-face and telephone transaction channels (‘channel shift’), including reduced reliance on health services in favour of online health management resources.
UK online centres, Good Things Foundation and the progression to Further Education (Just Economics)
A Social Return on Investment - Analysis for Good Things Foundation (Just Economics)