Harnessing Connections: Online Centres Network and DevicesDotNow

Researcher Joseph Chambers discusses how we can use the connectivity of the online centres network to reach vulnerable and isolated individuals during Covid-19.

Online Centres have always been more than just places of learning or information: they have been vital hubs in communities – many since long before the advent of the internet.

They have acted as safe and welcoming spaces that foster real, valuable social connections. However, with a national lockdown now in place, people have suddenly lost their connection to spaces.

Thanks to dedicated staff and volunteers, many Online Centres have been able to pivot towards delivering learning and support online, making innovative use of digital technology to make sure those most vulnerable aren’t left stranded. But despite centres’ best efforts, some people are now completely cut off due to having no access to a connected digital device, putting them at increased risk of poverty, hunger, loneliness, and poor physical and mental health.

By working with FutureDotNow and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Good Things Foundation are attempting to address the problem of social isolation caused by lockdown through DevicesDotNow, an initiative that will distribute digital devices and connectivity solutions to those most in need.

120 Online Centres have already expressed an interest in taking part, and have set about planning how to make sure these devices reach people deemed a priority. The relationships they have with learners, established over months or sometimes years, means that they know who might be vulnerable during lockdown. They’re also using ‘soft networks’ – friendship groups and social connections – and online messaging groups so that they can find people in need who don’t currently use their services, as well as partnering with food banks, homeless services, and family centres. These new partnerships, and the new learners recruited through them, represent a silver lining to the lockdown: when life gets back to normal, more people will be receiving support from the Online Centres Network than ever before.

But simply giving people devices isn’t enough. As part of the DevicesDotNow programme, Online Centres are planning to support people for as long as they have a device, through regular phone checkups as well as timetabled learning sessions. Our centres’ connections with their learners are critically important here: learners trust their local centres, and know that they can call and ask for help at any time of day.

Trust between the Online Centres Network and Good Things Foundation is also central to the success of DevicesDotNow. We try to make decisions based on the best possible data – it’s why we established our excellent Data Insights Team – but the urgency and complexity of the current situation makes that impossible. How do you collect the data necessary to establish who needs a device, thoroughly enough to make an informed decision, and quickly enough to distribute devices now, this week, and not just as lockdown is coming to an end?

And even then, with so many types of need, how are you supposed to look at a dataset and decide what trumps what? How do you decide who to prioritise out of – for example – a man living alone in his nineties, or a refugee mother of three children?

But, thankfully, our connection to the Online Centres Network means that we haven’t had to try and collect this data, or make those impossible decisions. Centres aren’t just ‘delivery partners’ or ‘sub-grantees’, and that’s never been clearer than it is now. They’re our link to socially excluded people, trusted intermediaries, and experts at what they do. They’re perfectly placed to reach out to those who are facing isolation or hardship during lockdown, and we know that they’ll distribute devices to those who need them most. They will make those difficult decisions based not on numbers but on real knowledge of individuals, and ensuring those individuals are supported every step of the way.

We’ve always been proud of our network-led model, and our relationship with Online Centres; these things have never been more important than they are today.

Joseph Chambers


Joseph works within the Research Team, examining the impact of the network and exploring ways in which services and projects provided by Good Things Foundation can be best developed.