Jane Seale, Eileen Scanlon, Vic Lally, Richard Noss
In this wealthy, technology-rich country, nearly a fifth of people rarely, if ever, venture online. Millions are excluded from the digital revolution, unable to access or make good use of the devices the rest of us take for granted. The UK’s digital inequalities mirror its other inequalities. Those on the wrong side of the
digital divide are those who are marginalised as a result of poverty, age, gender, disability, race, religion or class.
Yet social exclusion does not inevitably mean digital exclusion. Many poor families own smart phones, PlayStations and PCs. For them, the issue is how to harness the technologies they have to combat the inequalities that blight their lives – inequalities in income, education, housing and health.
Helping the digitally excluded to become not only digitally included but also digitally advantaged is a key theme of technology enhanced learning research.
In the context of full-time education, three groups of learners are most at risk of exclusion: those who are disengaged, those who are hard to reach, and those with special educational needs.
In schools, colleges and universities, technology can transform curricula, practices and cultures. For example, accessible learning management systems and assistive technologies make it easier for students with special needs to engage with the curriculum and with other students. Teachers can use interactive media and related technologies to open up the curriculum and engage disaffected learners. Hard-to-reach students who feel intimidated or rejected by educational institutions, can now learn at home, in the local café or community centre, or in their hostel. Once online with a mobile device such as a smart phone or an iPad, hard-to-reach students are in control of their learning.
People need to be able to use technology that does what they want in places where they feel valued and comfortable. Digital inclusion therefore requires:
- innovative technologies that address the unique needs and abilities of some students, particularly those with special education needs;
- teachers, parents, carers, support workers and community leaders to be creative and imaginative in terms of how and where they use technologies with learners;
- communities, institutions, local authorities and government to promote creative, transformative digital inclusion practices.
Many young people enjoy exploring virtual worlds such as Second Life through the persona of an avatar. Liberated from the constraints of reality, they can change everything about themselves. A diffident boy
can become an invincible warrior. A shy and insecure girl can turn herself into a princess.
The Inter-Life research team set out to investigate whether the creative possibilities of virtual worlds had applications beyond play. Could they, for example, help young people cope with important transitions such as from school to university or from local authority care to independent living. With this in mind, they set up two virtual islands: the first for over-18s to tackle school-to-university and within university transitions; and the second for 13 to 17-year-olds to work on creative activities and skills related to leaving a care home.
On the islands, the young people participated in research and reflective activities, gaining insights into emotions and developing their problem-solving skills. They planned and executed creative activities (with support) that expressed a need, issue, or concern, an interest or a personal liking. Island 2 became a space ‘in tension’ between home and school, a space that often challenged its users to act more openly than was their custom.
Island 2 became an authentic place to work and socialise – for the research team as well as the young people. It developed both a sense of place and of group history as the teenagers customised it, creating working areas, buildings and presentation tools. They became emotionally engaged with their island and explored issues of identity through community activity and dialogue. Accounts of avatar customisation and personalisation also indicated that the experiences of island life were capable of boosting their self-esteem.
On both the islands, users were shown to ‘map’ – or relate – their experiences in the virtual community into their life in the real world. Lessons learned in the virtual world were lessons that did not need to be re-learned in the real world.
As one of the Inter-Life researchers said: ‘Our hope was not just to disseminate knowledge, but to see the kids construct knowledge. Some of them were interested in making films depicting a problem with vulnerability at a point of transition in their lives. Think of bullying, teasing, taunting, betrayal. Suppose they met with their avatars on the island and used the film as a stimulus, saying “this is the problem, how can we fix it?” All we’ve done is provide them with the space and the opportunity to make a contribution.’