The Longitudinal Learner Survey forms part of our evaluation of the Future Digital Inclusion project, funded through the Department of Education. Over the course of 18 months, we interviewed a cohort of individuals who have been supported by online centres.
These interviews tracked the individuals from their first engagement with the online centre, and chart their attitudes toward digital media over the course of a year and a half.
Through Routes for Inclusion, we got a deep understanding of how an individual’s relationship with an Online Centre supports their progression over a prolonged period. It helped us to understand that Online Centres provide more than a service. They build relationships with their learners, and these relationships provide the conditions in which learners progress. We observed different kinds of progression, and from all of our interview data, we developed three trajectories. These observe ownership, episodic, or reluctant behaviours in relation to digital technology.
It became clear through our interviews, that some people reach a point at which their digital skills become self-sustaining. Tracing the similarities between these people, we recognised clear patterns, both in the way that they came to seek digital skills support, and the way that they adopt technology.
Each of these individuals went through a period of crisis - bereavement, homelessness, declining health, and poor mental health - which created a turning point in their life. In each case, our interviewees reflected on that period of crisis as a contribution to their current position. Rosemarie, for example, saw that she needed to become more independent after her husband suffered a period of illness. Learning digital skills was the way for her to do this. In contrast, Simon and Mark went through more extended periods of crisis and instability. Learning digital skills was part of their recovery, but the link between their crises and their experience at an Online Centre was less direct.
Although their routes to digital skills were very different in each case, when they began to learn, it is as if the internet suddenly became very relevant to them. This was the case for Mark, Simon, Rosemarie and Ron, who all seemed to recognise early on how useful the internet could be. This was the case, even if they first felt unable to explore the internet, or maintained skepticism about the total benefit of being online.
Relevance can be transformative. Simon understood elements of the internet, but he had assumed that it was not possible for him to access it. Being introduced to an iPad made it physically possible for him to use a computer, which suddenly made technology relevant to his life in a way that it hadn’t been before.
For each of these people, their early experiences of learning digital skills were frustrating. They initially used the internet in a very limited way, often with frequent help, and others prompting them or intentionally introducing them to new applications.
In time, they explored more. They became more active in their digital use; at this point, their use seemed to improve much faster. This point seemed to be linked to owning a device. Rosemarie, Simon, and Mark all bought devices during the 18 month interview period. Device ownership seemed to bring about a change in how someone learnt. This is about regularity, and the way that regular use brings about more exploration. After owning a device for a few weeks, Simon said “I’m more confident, I pick it up more now.”
Confident independence is the point at which individuals take ownership of their learning. Often, as with Simon, Ron, and Rosemarie, they still access support from an Online Centre. But they are more active in their use of this support; asking for answers to specific problems that they have come across.
This becomes sustainable, because they learn faster as their confidence increases.
Episodic learners have a very similar trajectory to owners. Again, the individuals we interviewed had often experienced a point of crisis. Though in all of these cases, individual crises were related to employment. Fatima had experienced long-term unemployment; Liz, Steven and Neil were all unemployed after long periods in work. Their employment status and their interaction with digital skills is crucial.
Again, the similar trajectory between episodic learners and owners is marked by the important role that confidence plays in their experience. As these people were attending Online Centres for employment support, job-seeking was prioritised over the development of wider digital skills. This was evident for Steven, who used an Online Centre as a stepping stone to more intensive employment support. Reflecting on his support at the Online Centre, he said “it’s been invaluable because I went there and had very limited knowledge. Just being able to get a CV put into order was very important.”
Although these individuals were often positive about digital skills, they were predominantly using the Online Centre for a mix of pastoral and job support. Pastoral support plays a crucial role in the development of opportunities, which can lead to employment. Often, it seems that digital skills forms part of a pastoral support method, because it slowly introduces learners to new skills, with support and very little risk.
As Liz said, she mainly wanted help to register on Universal Jobmatch, and write a CV. When she was at the Online Centre, she also got lots of support to help her think about what kinds of jobs she should apply to: “they talked to me about me and what I could do and that I needed to think that you could do whatever you wanted to do”. Fatima had a similar experience of her Online Centre, because she wanted her experience to be employment-focused. As a result, the centre taught her digital skills with a strong employment focus.
This group do learn digital skills. But, where Owners reach a point of self-directed exploration, episodic learners do not. Instead, they acquire digital skills that are directly relevant to finding a job. Often, they are introduced to other ways of using computers.
Often, episodic learners see the benefit of digital skills. Neil was very engaged in the process of learning, and talked about the things that he wanted to learn in the future. However, when he got a job, he stopped coming to the centre. Because he did not have a computer a home, he didn’t keep learning. He finished support at the centre with more skills than when he started, but he never reached a point at which he was confidently exploring and gaining new skills and experiences of the internet.
Another clear trajectory emerged from our interviews. Some of the people who we interviewed used the computer in a very limited way. They take very little interest in using it for anything other than looking for jobs, and they do this only because they have to in order to claim their benefits.
It is difficult to unpick the motivations in this group in a way that clearly differentiates them from the other personas. Although they have often experienced similar events to others - such as long-term unemployment - they are not inspired by the internet at all. In these cases, jobcentre interventions have got them to an Online Centre, and they can functionally search for work online. Apart from that, they appear to be having very little effect.
Geraldine has been unemployed since her mother died, a decade ago. Before then, she was her mother’s primary carer. She has taken part in a number of courses as part of her relationship with the job centre. On two occasions, she has attended 24 week maths and English classes. These were mandated by the jobcentre, but she says that she enjoyed them. Now, she has a jobseeking target, which she generally meets by applying to jobs that she sees advertised in the paper. She tries not to use a computer, but has to do some searching through universal jobmatch. For a year or so, she has been volunteering in the cafe at her Online Centre - a role she found through a friend of hers. She is hoping that volunteering might help her to find work, and she’s looking for cafe or care work at the moment.
We also interviewed Donna, who had a very similar attitude to computer use. Donna is much younger than Geraldine, but like Geraldine has not had a job for several years. Donna has also attended various mandated courses through the jobcentre, including the work programme. She has now been attending an Online Centre for the last eighteen months, because her job advisor thought that she needed support to access the internet.
Donna had ‘had a Universal Jobmatch account for ages’, but wasn’t using it. She was referred to an Online Centre ‘to learn and know how to use one’. Some members of Donna’s family regularly use the internet, her mum and brother live together, and she ‘goes over on a weekend’ to use jobmatch. While she is there, she uses her brother’s laptop, which he won’t let her use alone. Her other brother has a computer, but is ‘cut off the internet’ for now.
Reluctant users only look at the computer through the lens of jobseeking. Geraldine says that she would like a tablet, but then says that she would only use it for jobsearch if she did have one. Donna doesn’t feel motivated to use the computer for anything, even though there are lots of things that she does ‘without thinking’, like turning it on, using jobmatch, and practicing for her driving theory test. She does these things, but has no inclination to explore the internet beyond this. She isn’t against the internet, she just isn’t inclined to use it.
Like Geraldine, Donna has very little income, and doesn’t think that it’s necessary or useful to pay for a computer and a connection. Reluctant users do not seek out access to the internet, or seek out different ways to use the internet. When we asked Donna about transacting online, she said “I haven’t got any direct debits now so I wouldn’t want to start one up”.
The Longitudinal Learner Study was conceived as a way to collect data on the population of individuals who access Online Centres for support with computer use. The goals of the research were to explore the experiences of individuals, within a month of them starting to attend an Online Centre, and track their experience of learning how to use a computer over the next 18 months. Participants were interviewed at six month intervals, giving an ideal total of 4 interviews for each participant over the course of the project. Our understanding of these people through the Online Centre network suggested that, because these people had complicated lives, their experiences of learning digital skills were often complex and nonlinear.
Participants were contacted through Online Centres. For pragmatic purposes, Online Centres were chosen to participate in the LLS on the basis of engagement. Engagement is an internal score, determined by whether a centre is funded, whether a centre takes part in Good Things Foundation’s national campaigns, and whether centres respond on a day-to-day basis to contact with Good Things Foundation.
The Online Centre Network is highly diverse, and the nature and depth of the support that they offer also varies. The centres engaged in the LLS all offer open-ended support, free informal tuition, and free computer access. All of the centres are community-based, though some of them have explicit foci; around unemployment, housing, or disability support. The following centres participated in the study:
Most, but not all, of the participants could be considered ‘hard-to-reach’ for studies of this kind. With this in mind, the qualitative stance of the study was entirely appropriate. Interviews followed a semi-structured format. First interviews covered all aspects of device use, and explored this in relation to the individual’s daily life. Interviews were kept open to explore responses, and allow the participant to introduce new topics. Sequential interviews were loosely structured in relation to what participants said in earlier interviews. Often, this allowed for further reflection on their original responses. Interviews generally lasted between 45 minutes and 1 hour.
Interviews were transcribed and coded. We classified phrases, and pieces of transcribed text into a number of codes. Each code related to the content of the text; these included headings like ‘attitude to jobcentre’ or ‘internal motivation’. We used open coding, which means that we allowed the content of the responses to determine the codes that we used. Collective themes and issues emerged as we compared the codes across the interviews. In turn, these codes were reflected on in relation to the narratives that were emerging from sequential interviews. This iterative process formed the basis for our findings.