Social inclusion through digital participation

By Cristina Quinones (cristina.quinones@open.ac.uk), November 2016:

Over the last few days I have been very lucky to participate in discussions about issues of social inclusion through digital participation thanks to Professor Leela Damodaran’s invitation. Leela is the Principal Investigator of the SUS-IT project (sustaining IT use by older people to promote autonomy and independence). A three-year project that exploring the use of IT by older people which was funded by the New Dynamics of Ageing Project, which receive joint funding from the five research councils.

The Sus-IT team worked with over 1000 older adults in a mix-methods design that lasted for over 4 years and amongst other things the researchers found that:

  1. Older people want to be connected: they value the benefit and independence that going online gives
  2. Benefits of being connected include personal health, self-efficacy, skills and capabilities, social interaction economic and life changes, and civic engagement

Unfortunately, there are very strong barriers to sustain digital engagement of older adults stopping older adults from reaping these benefits. The main ones across the board seemed to be poor design and the lack of ICT learning and support provision for people who are no longer in places of employment where ICT support is available as a given.

It is this second aspect that was the focus of the workshop. The lack of support becomes a major issue for users who are no longer in the workplace. Routine IT tasks such as anti-virus software installation and updates often undertaken by IT departments for those in employment are suddenly left to the individual who may home alone, without help and support. Whilst some seek help from their family members or from friends and neighbours, not everyone has these resources and even if they do, the increasing demand on accessing health and social services through digital means sometimes means that privacy of those who are not digitally engaged can be jeopardised (or perceived to be so) by having to rely on intermediaries.

When I was hearing some of the examples of respondents I suddenly began to think about when I left my parents’ home to England ten years ago. Up until then, my brother had done all the IT stuff for me. Frankly I had no interest whatsoever, back then it was a means to an end and the means itself interested me very little. However, when leaving Spain I suddenly panicked, my brother had helped me chose a good laptop for my studies but what would I do now without his help regarding music download, virus control etc.? At that point that feeling was quite daunting, purely because up till then I just didn’t have to worry (well I knew I had to put up with his “I’ll do it later”). After a few months and some trial and error here, and help of friends there I finally realised how empowered I felt by not having to rely on him. However, the pace of technological advances makes me realise how ephemeral this empowerment really is.

Thinking back of the younger version of me, I was about to start my working life and postgraduate studies and there were of course huge changes in my life, perhaps one of the most significant was to start writing and speaking in a foreign language I hadn’t used for a number of years! Also, being successful in my PG studies required me to have good level of digital engagement. IT departments at the University and peer interaction made that quite easy, in fact I don’t remember this being a problem at all.

Transitioning from work to retirement and to older adult life has other physical, psychological, cognitive and social changes which can become real barriers for people to stay on the ‘wave’. One of the changes that trigger my memory of losing my brother’s IT expertise is the transition from being in employment with IT department one day and suddenly being at home with no such support at all. Quite a scary and daunting thought. The work of the Sus-IT team showed that unfortunately this is not just about missing out on certain leisure activities, but disengaging digitally for older adults in a country where there is an increasing provision of services digitally including access to health and social services, can seriously threaten the quality of life of older people.

Luckily, the Sus-IT study tells us that you don’t have to convince older people to be engaged digitally, they are in, but they want you to listen to what they really need to sustain their engagement:

  1. They need readily available independent trusted advice and troubleshooting (no sales pitches!)
  2. Opportunity to try devices to see what best fits their needs
  3. Designers of IT-enabled services to consider their needs from the design

I was inspired with the presentation from Long Eaton 50+ forum classes and drop-in sessions, informal introductory sessions on using laptops and tablets, and informal ‘troubleshooting’ sessions. This has been successfully running for 11 years free of charge to its users. Considering its success – which is evident by the enthusiasm of its members and the long life of the socially relaxed and informal support – our question was what can we learn from this and how can this be replicated/adapted in other parts of the country? Discussions are ongoing as the complexity of the different ways in which local councils are run and funded, and the singularities of each community have to be acknowledged but two levels of work were identified:

  1. Local activists for grass-roots organisation – friends, neighbours also some ready-made local groups.
  2. Policy-makers, people who understand the importance of the evidence gathered by Sus-IT and are able to influence at the strategic level.

I am so happy to have been part of this exciting real evidence-based discussions especially considering the important mix in the audience some academics but mostly 50plus people and local councillors, and library representatives, all key stakeholders in this important digital inclusion project.

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