Digital inclusion, education and the future of the web

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 6 May 2009

I recently blogged about Social exclusion and digital Britain, focusing upon how Universities should be engaging in partnerships with local communities, in order both to enhance learning literacies that are facilitated by technologies and to help create spaces within which those communities can empower themselves.

Having attended a lunchtime paper on Digital Citizenship, hosted by our LGRU and delivered by Karen Mossberger from the University of Illinois, I’m now convinced that this is more vital. In particular, Karen highlighted how the indicators of poverty also impacted digital citizenship, access to IT and broadband, and information literacy. She highlighted the disenfranchisement of poor neighbourhoods (in Chicago in her studies) and poor minority groups. However, much of her work focused upon a Web1.0 view of the world, with analysis of (PEW-based) data from pre-2003. The technological world has moved on so much more since then, with a focus now upon emerging issues like:

  • Social networks and networked literacy;
  • Mobile technologies;
  • Organisation of niche or issue-related associations, and communities of practice; and
  • Semantic web and cloud computing, that affect the management of networks and content.

Engaging with these emergent issues, the work carried out by NGOs like Amnesty and Oxfam is at once participative, devolved, deliberative, and activist to different people, who are able shape and personalise their involvement within different associations. This personalisation helps build communities of practice that stand beyond local and national government, and exists as a participative activity for different people in different ways. For instance, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs can all be used in conjunction with an organisation’s own website or portal to arrange, report, disseminate and organise. The National Digital Inclusion conference recently kept non-attendees up-to-date using the Twitter hashtag #ndi09, whilst HopeNotHate use their own portal, linked to mobiles and email, to organise electoral activism across the whole East Midlands.

These new ways of working do not necessarily engage the technologically, culturally or politically disenfranchised, but they do offer new models for building social capital and civic engagement. Of course there is scope for those in power to use digital participation to maintain their own traditional agendas. This is witnessed by Number 10′s YouTube channel, and the use of digital data to monitor environmental protesters. This paradigm is also evident in The Future Internet: Web 3.0 presentation hosted by the Learning Technologies team at NUI Galway, which focuses upon how the web and our use of it can enable business and the economy. The danger is that it offers no new ways of working, just ways in which extant companies can gain efficiencies and market themselves to new audiences. There is no radical or progressive hope here.

Perhaps a more hopeful view for the future internet is building social capital and social enterprise, and enabling new communities of practice to grow. This is especially the case for education, where new ways of working and engaging with the emergent issues noted above offer hope for a newer, more radical pedagogy that is built around personally meaningful access, enquiry, mentoring, decision-making and action. This is framed by a promise of enhanced social [educational] capital and our ability to nurture new communities of inquiry. These stand against attempts by established organisations, including lecturers and Universities, to lever old ways of working into the use of new technologies and the new communities of practice that emerge.

These issues need to be addressed in light of the demands for flexibility in curriculum design and delivery, alongside, and not separate from the need for more active engagement with digital inclusion agendas. We have the spaces to discuss issues of power and control, participation and civic responsibility, and these can be led by Universities, as part of an engagement with students, voluntary groups, social enterprises and business. I’m just not sure that a traditional analysis of education, inclusion and the future of the web, focused on traditional models of engagement, development and participation, are relevant or helpful. In inspiring social and educational inclusion, we need are more progressve, radical evaluations, visions and proposals.

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