Education and Information Technologies

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 133–149

Aligning digital and social inclusion: A study of disadvantaged students and computer access

Authors

    • Victoria University, School of Education
  • Greg Neal
    • Victoria University, School of Education
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10639-012-9223-y

Cite this article as:
Yelland, N. & Neal, G. Educ Inf Technol (2013) 18: 133. doi:10.1007/s10639-012-9223-y

Abstract

In this paper we discuss the notion of the digital divide and link it with recent policy designed to promote social inclusion in a project that addressed both issues. Families in low socio economic areas of Australia were given computers and Internet access as part of a project that had as its primary aim to support the participation of disadvantaged families in digital activities at home and in schools. The authors collected data over a period of 3 years that included, pre and post surveys with parents and students, interviews with program facilitators, and focus groups with parents. This paper focuses on selected themes that emerged from the interview and focus group data with the parents and explores the ways in which they perceived having the computer had impacted on their lives and those of their school aged children. This data (surveys, interviews and focus groups) reveals that all family members felt that the ownership of a computer enabled them to feel more confident about their active participation in everyday educational, social and community activities. Parents, teachers and students also reported that owning a computer was important to their lives yet they were not naïve to the fact that they still had a lot to learn in terms of using all the options available to them on the computer. Students noted the increased ease with which they could complete school work and communicate with friends in online contexts and outlined some of the ways in which they used the computer for leisure activities. Parents highlighted the increase in their own digital skill levels and described the ways in which their lives had benefitted from having a computer in the home. Problems associated with connectivity at the beginning of the project, the quality of the machines and inadequate initial training were listed as drawbacks to greater participation. The project represents one attempt to address the digital divide and illustrates how going beyond the dichotomy of a ‘haves’ v ‘have nots’ view of the digital divide is necessary if we want to promote social inclusion.

Keywords

Digital divideNew technologiesSocial inclusion

1 Introduction

The students who inhabit our schools today are referred to by various names (e.g. Generation Z, Net Generation, iGeneration, digital natives and the Millennials). They were born post 1985–1990 and constitute a cohort who play around in digital spaces and communicate on a daily basis with peers, family and acquaintances for a variety of purposes using many devices (Howe and Strauss 2000). Various surveys and reports (e.g. ACMA 2007; Kaiser Family Foundation 1999; MacArthur Foundation 2010) have commented on the ubiquitous nature, and high levels of use of new technologies in the lives of this cohort. It is apparent that a large number of homes have a wide range of media options that include televisions, mobile phones, computers, iPods, mp3 players, DVD machines, digital cameras, interactive toys and games, video game consoles and mobile devices. For example, for many years now in the United States, the Kaiser Family Foundation (e.g. Rideout 2005; Rideout et al. 2010) has conducted extensive surveys regarding media use by children and teens. The most recent (2010) report states that since their last survey in 2005 there has been a major increase in use of new media that is mainly attributed to ownership of mobile devices. In the 5 years preceding their study, there was a large increase in mobile phone ownership, from 39 % to 66 %, and the increase in iPod ownership soared from 18 % to 76 %.

The most salient finding was that “8 to 18 year olds spend more time with media than in any other activity… an average of more than 7 h a day, 7 days a week” (Rideout et al. 2010). It represents a greater amount of time than many adults spend in full time employment, and they do it 7 days a week. The report also confirms that:

In the last 5 years, home Internet access has expanded from 74 % to 84 % among young people; the proportion with a laptop has grown from just under 12 % to 29 %; and Internet access in the bedroom jumped from 20 % to 33 %. The quality of Internet access has improved as well, with high-speed access increasing from 31 % to 59 % (p.3)

High-speed Internet access and new Web 2.0 technology applications have thus dramatically changed the ways that young people use the Internet. The most popular computer activities being social networking (e.g. Facebook, Flickr) and video sites like YouTube. Such sites were not widely available in 2004 (Facebook was launched in 2004)—but now they account for an average of 37 % of young peoples’ daily media time in the US (Rideout et al. 2010).

In the UK Livingstone and Bober (2005) and Livingstone et al. (2011) conducted and reported on a major study of the online behaviour of children (9 to 19 years of age) in the European Union (EU). Their final report (2011) revealed that Internet use was increasingly individualised, privatized and mobile and one in which the 9–16 year old cohort spent 88 min on average a day online. Forty nine per cent of the students went online in their bedroom on their own computer and 33 % went online via a mobile phone or handheld device. More used the Internet at home (87 %) than at school (63 %). Their earlier report (2005) showed that most of the children used the Internet for searches associated with school projects (homework) and for their own interests.

The final report also indicated inequalities in ownership and opportunities with regard to computer ownership and Internet use. They noted a ‘ladder of opportunities’ in which only a quarter, and few younger children, reached the most advanced and creative step of using computers. They felt that inequalities in digital skills were present based on Socio Economic Status (SES) and to a lesser extent based on the gender of the child. The digital divide based on social class that they originally noted in 2005, was evident in ownership levels whereby 88 % of middle class families owned an internet connected computer but only 61 % of working class children could access the internet at home. This was further exacerbated by another gap which they later characterized as the ‘ladder of opportunities’ which was “… between those for whom the internet is an increasingly rich, diverse, engaging and stimulating resource and those for whom it remains a narrow, un-engaging, if occasionally useful, resource of rather less significance.” (p.4) One of their recommendations in terms of policy initiatives was that in countries where children do not ‘progress’ very far up the metaphorical ladder of opportunity, educational and digital literacy initiatives need to be initiated.

The EU kids online project report (Livingstone et al. 2011) also indicated that parents realised that it was valuable for them to engage with their child’s Internet use because of the perceived dangers associated with being online. The strategies that they adopted to reduce the risks varied according to the age of their children and some parents simply left it up to their children to decide. This, in fact, was readily accepted by some of the children who indicated that they did not want their parents to take more interest, while remaining generally positive about the measures that their parents did take in an attempt to make them aware of the dangers associated with Internet use.

In Australia, a report entitled “Media and communications in Australian families” (MCAF) (ACMA 2007) showed similar types of activities. MCAF (ACMA 2007) found that for Australian youth, online participation was the second most time-consuming media activity behind television viewing, reflecting the high levels of Internet and broadband access among Australian families. The report also found that at this time 91 % of Australian families were connected to the Internet and 76 % of them had Broadband. This is in fact higher than in the US where the figures were 84 % and 59 % respectively.

Yet there remain children and families who are not able to participate in this digital revolution for a variety of reasons that tend to be closely aligned to social and economic circumstances. Studies (e.g. Helsper 2008; Warschauer 2003) focusing on the links between social and digital engagement, especially with reference to Internet use, increasingly show that those individuals who have access to ICT, generally come from families that have more schooling, higher incomes, and high status occupations. In discussing digital and social advantage, Helsper (2008) noted that “those who are most deprived socially are also least likely to have access to digital resources such as online services” (p. 9).

Kennedy et al. (2010) warn against thinking of the Millennials as a homogenous group with similar patterns of behaviour and access to new technologies. Their work illustrates the diverse skills and preferences that characterize young peoples’ use of new technologies which range from basic, irregular, ordinary to power users. Such considerations form a useful framework for thinking about the digital divide and social inclusion since there are a range of factors that may inhibit the type of use that individuals regard as being desirable for their lives.

2 From the digital divide to social inclusion

The digital divide was originally characterized by distinguishing those who ‘have’ new technologies (initially computers) with those who ‘have not’ got them (Gore 1998). However, as computers became more affordable, like televisions in previous eras, they became more ubiquitous in homes and the next divide was created by those who were able to afford broadband connectivity as opposed to those who remained on dialup access with slow and irregular services. Now there seems to be a new divide occurring with regard to the type and quality of uses of new technologies that are appropriated by people, so much so, that it is easy to recognize those who maintain a basic consumption model of use compared to those who create their own content for comment, discussion and critique in the multitude of social forums that populate web 2.0 today (Yelland 2007, 2011).

Corrin et al. (2011) noted that ‘…whilst technology ownership and usage have increased, the technological characteristics of digital native students showed a significant level of diversity’. They also cite the work of Kennedy et al. (2010) to illustrate the diversity between types of usage of technologies by students and it is relevant to consider the variety since they represent very different levels of engagement and complexity which ultimately enable or restrict how they are able to interact with others.

A decade ago, Warschauer (2002) called for a reconceptualising of the digital divide away from a focus on access to technology to one in which opportunities for social inclusion were at the forefront of consideration. He warned that initiatives that simply provide hardware for participants without a consideration of the social milieu in which they were to be located were doomed to failure, since ‘…technology and society are intertwined and constitutive, and this complex interrelationship makes any assumption of causality problematic.’ (p.4)

Even earlier, Sproull and Kiesler (1991) noted that technological innovation and implementation tended to focus on ‘first order’ effects that were to do with productivity and economies of scale. They contended that ‘second order’ effects which were related to social system factors, were more important in terms of the extent and influence of technological innovation yet rarely considered or evaluated in projects. Warschauer (2002) also maintained that focusing on the technology itself without sufficient consideration of the human and social systems that need to adapt to it, is problematic. As he noted:

Content and language, literacy and education, and community and institutional structures must all be taken into account if meaningful access to new technologies is to be provided. (p.3)

Warschauer (2002) promoted a reconceptualisation of the concept of the digital divide to a technology of social inclusion. It is based in a new view of access beyond provision of the machine to include access to the social, cultural and economic capital (Bourdieu 1984) that accrues from being fluent in the meaningful social practices associated with living in a technologically based society:

There is not one type of ICT access, but many; the meaning and value of access varies in particular social context, access exists in gradations, rather than in a bipolar opposition… ICT use is a social practice involving access to physical artifacts, skills and social support; and, acquisition of ICT access is a matter not only of education, but also of power… Access to ICT for social inclusion cannot rest on the provision of devices…it must entail the engagement of a range of resources… (p.3)

This has also been noted by Helsper (2008) who reported that when those from low socio economic groups do participate in digital activity, they tend to do so at a much more basic level that involves information seeking, obtaining leisure information, making purchases online and for individual communication with families and friends at a distance. In contrast, she indicated that the advanced levels of activity characterized by social networking and civic engagement that allow participants to interact beyond their immediate networks, for example, are only conducted by 8 % of the population. This then reinforces a gap, since the qualitative differences in use enables those with more advanced technologies and applications to participate in activities that facilitate and extend their capabilities in cyber contexts. It is becoming increasingly important to be fluent in advanced activities, exemplified in Web 2.0 applications which go well beyond basic uses of computers with an Internet connection (Yelland and Neal 2010). In this way, simply providing access via machines is not enough. Digital and social inclusion now needs to be addressed by discussing ways in which creative and higher order contexts and opportunities for disadvantaged groups can be provided. This can often be problematic since new technologies are rapidly evolving and what constitutes digital inclusion changes accordingly. What was considered as advanced 3 years ago, would now be generally considered as basic to the lives of many citizens. Helsper (2008) advised that studies have revealed that the main factors for digital inclusion are relevance, the nature of the experience and empowerment. This basically means that digital experiences have to be connected to the lives and needs of users and will only be perpetuated if they are positive and make life easier. It was effectively summarized by DiMaggio et al. (2001) who stated:

As the technology penetrates into every crevice of society, the pressing question will be not “who can find a network connection at home work, or in the library or community centre from which to log on?” but instead, “what are people doing, and what are they able to do, when they go on-line?”

DiMaggio et al. (2001) also highlight the role that society plays in affording all people access to the Internet by noting that the policies of public institutions shape patterns of inequality and effective Internet access and use. Everyone can potentially benefit from such policies and thus it becomes increasingly important for public institutions and agencies to consider the issues around access and use of new technologies. Further, as technologies become more pervasive in our lives we also need to provide mechanisms by which assistance can be provided, both in school and in out-of-school contexts, so that individuals and groups may participate more fully in online experiences. Formal assistance may include backing from public organizations such as the library or private organizations such as the workplace. Personal assistance is likely to be sought from family, friends and colleagues.

Digital inclusion only forms part of the picture in terms of achieving social inclusion goals, but it remains a significant part of the experience that is frequently ignored in policy documents.

3 Social inclusion as policy in Australia

The Australian Government released a social inclusion strategy in 2009 (Dept. of the Prime Minister and Cabinet 2009) in which they stated that they are committed to building ‘a stronger and fairer Australia’. (p.2) Social inclusion is defined as:

…building a nation in which all Australians have the opportunity and support they need to participate fully in the nation’s economic and community life, develop their own potential and be treated with dignity and respect. (p.2)

The government outlined a strategy that considers capacity building for disadvantaged citizens which includes improving capabilities and skills in communication, negotiation, organization, time management, as well as being able to navigate services available. Further, they wish to provide opportunities for increased participation in education and the workforce and the resources to support their participation in this wide range of endeavours. Yet, apart from one brief mention of the Digital Education Revolution in terms of schooling, there is hardly a mention of access to new technologies being a fundamental way in which social inclusion can be dealt with to achieve such lofty goals. This is problematic since it becomes apparent that not having access to new technologies can significantly disadvantage citizens in terms of being able to participate fully in a range of social and educational experiences (e.g. Gore 1998).

Here, we focus on the ways in which this current study enabled families, both students and their parents, to feel more included in their local and global communities. We suggest that this then enabled them to increase their learning potential in both social and educational contexts. This resonates with Warschauer’s (2002) view that “ICT for the promotion of social inclusion cannot rest on the provision of devices…alone.” (p.7) What comes with this is a realization that we still have a long way to go and that we need to be more proactive in providing ongoing support and resources that encourage participants to enhance their social, economic and political power base.

4 Research design

The basic aim of the Tech Packs project was to identify and distribute Internet connected computers to families who could not afford to purchase one. Initially, it was assumed that this would provide opportunities for the families to acquire digital skills that would enable them to participate more fully in social and educational contexts. The research project was grounded in the theoretical framework of cultural capital postulated by Bourdieu (e.g. 1984, 1993) which recognised that families and schools play a critical and increasingly pervasive role in perpetuating the advantage of specific knowledge and skills that are valued by society across generations. In contemporary times this advantage is directly linked to the use of new technologies to acquire, disseminate and communicate knowledge in diverse ways. The design is underpinned by a socio-cultural theoretical framework, with an emphasis on rigorous and high quality empirical data and statistical analysis. This theoretical perspective pays attention to learning in context and in particular in groups. The theoretical framework that informed the work was based in socio-cultural theory which maintains that all phenomena exist in a social and cultural context which needs to be considered when analyzing data. This study incorporated a mixed methods research design in order to consider the research questions.

The families were provided with refurbished computers, Internet access, training in how to set up and use the computer and help line support. The research involved addressing the following questions:
  1. 1.

    How do the family members feel about having access to computers and the Internet in their homes?

     
  2. 2.

    What activities and applications do family members use the computer for?

     
  3. 3.

    Can family members articulate what they would like to do with the computers and Internet access in the future?

     
In order to answer the research questions the data collection consisted of:
  1. 1.

    Pre surveys—(parents & children) that sought basic demographic information, what technology was available to the families prior to their participation and what they were using technology for in their daily lives at that time.

     
  2. 2.

    The post pack survey then asked what they were doing with the ‘new’ computer, who used it and where it was located as well as what type of usage was performed by the various members of the family.

     
  3. 3.

    Interviews—we interviewed program facilitators via telephone and family members face-to-face in semi-structured open-ended question interviews to find out what the family members were using the computers for and their reaction to the initial training sessions.

     
  4. 4.
    Focus groups with parents. There were four main areas of discussion:
    1. a.

      the benefits of having a computer at home and what activities/applications they used most frequently

       
    2. b.

      the support that was provided to the families when using the technology

       
    3. c.

      the changes to their daily activities/lifestyle

       
    4. d.

      the perceived benefits/problems associated with the program.

       
     

The qualitative data (interviews and focus groups) was analysed using analytic induction (Janesick 1998) which Krathwohl (1993) describes as “finding regularities in the data leading first to a description and then to an explanation of the regularity” (p.324). Explanations of the regularities then enabled the generation of hypotheses (Glaser and Strauss 1967) and analytic generalization (Yin 1994) about the various factors under consideration.

5 Participants

The families were located in various communities throughout Australia, with the largest number being located in four states; New South Wales (NSW), Queensland (Qld.), Tasmania (Tas) and Western Australia (WA).

Participating families in the Tech Packs Project were required to meet certain criteria in order to obtain a computer. The criteria varied slightly between communities but basically they had to demonstrate that they were classed as low income/low socio economic status (job classification/unemployed) and this was usually manifested by the fact that they were eligible for the Health Care Card or a Centrelink Concession Card. This card is given to families who live below the minimum wage. They also had to have one or more school aged children.

6 Results

6.1 Background of participants

From the 23 communities, there were 320 pre-pack surveys returned for analysis. There were 60 from NSW (including 11 from the ACT), 142 from Queensland, 16 from Tasmania and 102 from Western Australia.

From the total number of survey respondents, 312 parent participants provided background details: 279 were females and 31 were males with an average age of 39 years. Sixty-one of the respondents (18.7 %), self-identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Of the total number of family responses across Australia, only 31 % identified themselves as being in the context of a “couple”, that is, with two parents as the primary carers. Fifty eight per cent of the participants (176 in total) were from single parent families while nearly 8 % had grandparents as the central parental figure/s in daily care of the children.

Single parent families often fall into the category of disadvantaged community members because of their financial difficulties, primarily as a result of their inability to obtain full time work. From the 312 survey respondents there were a total of 962 children involved in the Technology Packs Project over a period of 3 years.

Another socio-economic determinant that affects the quality of life in Australia is a lack of English speaking skills. While the most commonly used first language spoken in the homes of the participating families was English, as indicated by 270 parents—87 % of the group (who identified as Australian and New Zealanders), 13 % of families identified other languages being used as the main at home on a regular basis.

The education levels experienced and reported by this group revealed that 62 % completed secondary schooling and 25 % had attended a Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institution. Only 7.2 % of the cohort indicated higher education as their attained education level (University 5.8 % and post-graduation 1.4 %).

In this paper we focus on the evidence from the interviews and focus groups that revealed three themes pertaining to increasing participation, by both students and their parents, in educational and social activities as evidence for social inclusion. These were:
  • Connecting with society

  • Increased social opportunities

  • Types of use.

We highlight the findings from the data which illustrate the ways in which being connected to new digital social networks impacted on the lives of family members and enabled them to feel more optimistic about their ability to be successful at school and in other education contexts.

6.2 Connecting with society

It was evident that once the computer was in the home there was a marked increase in use reported by family members. The daily use of computers increased from 22.4 % to 57.3 %. The percentage of non-users also decreased significantly from 36.3 % to only 5.6 %. The data indicates that just over 94 % of the total respondents were using the computer in their home at least once a week. It suggests that the participants were either more willing or more motivated to use the resource in the “comfort” of their own home, rather than when they had to travel to locate an available computer such as at the local library. One parent who identified herself as a novice computer user indicated how quickly this opportunity enabled her to become a daily user:

I use it every day. Oh, probably an hour, maybe more… depending on what else I’ve got to do. Mainly at night time. That’s when I find it an advantage, late at night when my kids are in bed I can do what I need to do: pay my bills, whatever else I have to do. Once everything’s done, dishes, cleaning, washing it’s like well its computer time now. My time. (WA. parent).

The data revealed that the Internet connection provided family members with a new sense of belonging in their community and society. It enabled them to feel connected to others and that they have the same opportunities as others in society. This was reiterated by focus group participants who expressed their pleasure at being provided with the computer and Internet connectivity. They identified a number of ways the project had positively impacted their lives. These included feelings of increased social inclusion or “keeping up with the rest of the world”.

Social inclusion, or feeling part of the broader society, was one of the strongest themes emerging from the interviews. For example:

Well, we feel like we’re in the twenty first century, keeping up with the rest of the world… there’s less of a gap in those who have and those who don’t, so we’re feeling, I feel a little bit more, you don’t feel ashamed if someone says, awh… what’s your email address, like everyone’s asking for email, and I used to say, awh… I don’t have one, and be a little bit ashamed that I didn’t have one, but I feel better, more like everyone else. (Qld parent)

Parents participating in the project highlighted the value of having computer access at home particularly for their children. Having access to computers at home was perceived as a catalyst for personal growth and regarded as important to feel like a “normal” community member living in the knowledge society:

These days, kids, without computer access they’re not getting the knowledge they need, these days everything is to do with technology and that’s our future so, it is helping our kids moving along with the future because if we didn’t have the chance to get these computers, our kids wouldn’t be able to grow with the technology, and now it seems like they’re going to grow. (NSW parent)

Parents also made comments that reflected that they valued the immediate benefits of having a home computer connected to the Internet for achieving better learning outcomes for their children and in some cases their own education. Children, who previously felt excluded because of the lack of access to digital technologies, in their homes, could now navigate the Internet to gain access to a wealth of information, attempt and present homework in a digital form, complete additional homework and participate in extracurricular activities suggested by their teachers. The following vignette demonstrates that the perceived advantages of having a computer at home went beyond access to infrastructure and opened up opportunities that the students were previously unable to participate in:

The 12 year old, um she’s got a new teacher now but the one she had last term she was on a particular site, ah I forget the name of it but it was a teaching site, and she would add extra homework for kids who could access the Internet. And they’d do spelling tests and everything, every week their spelling words were on it. They could go online, do their spelling test and they’d get an award at the end if they got them right… She felt good that she could, ‘cos she wasn’t coming home saying that ‘oh I wish we had the Internet on like everybody else.’ (Qld parent)

Researcher: Before you had this Tech Pack computer did you have to take your daughter to the library to use the computer?

NSW parent: Yeah, or she’d go to my mums. My daughter’s doing HSC1 so she can do it all at home now,

Access to government services was a popular option with a number of participants from many communities. For example, parents would use online services of government agencies e.g. Centrelink. Before having a computer with home Internet access they would spend hours queuing or waiting on the phone:

The only time I contact Centrelink if there are any changes… everything else I am doin’ online. Oh it saves a lot of time. (WA parent).

Looking for jobs also proved to be a more pleasant experience online. A WA parent reported on the advantages of using technology to seek employment through the online services of the Job Network:

With the Job Network I get a password and everything. It helps me look for a job in town. And I just apply for it because my resume is already in the computer. So I send an email with my resume and… and I get a phone call.(WA parent)

One of the program facilitators spoke about a participant in the project who had applied online for a position at the local supermarket:

We’ve just had Aldi open here and they got offered [a job]. They did the application online, with the computer that they couldn’t have done before, (Program facilitator, Qld)

Participants consistently reported that access to a home computer saved them time and money, important considerations for many people who find themselves financially disadvantaged. Being able to access a home computer has become a significant and positive feature of their lives as shown in the following statements:

Instead of going to the library and using their computers to write up our resume, we got our own now, we can update it when we want (WA parent).

…through the school you can do the banking so I just pay it. It saves sending the kids with the money (WA parent).

I use the computer now for everything because everything’s going online, like for jobs, even the application form. Yeah you have a longer time now to submit the application. Even though I’m a very slow typer, I found that a big advantage. I had more time to fill in the application properly (WA parent).

My partner uses eBay. He has been buying carpets and motorbike parts. He can get things from anywhere and it’s a lot easier than having to make 20 million phone calls (WA parent).

6.3 Increased social opportunities

The data showed that parent’s use of the Internet included searching for information for both personal interest and education-related matters. Additionally, emailing, social networking and online chatting are all very popular activities and enable communication between users in a local and global space. In the interviews parents reported that social network sites, particularly Facebook, were a predominant feature of their lives and those of their children. Evidence of this was also shared at many of the focus groups where parents and students said that they engaged in some sort of social networking process as a communication resource:

It is a social network. Um it’s important to my kids cause their dad’s in Perth so that’s the way they connect with him (Qld parent).

His family [husband] is in Melbourne and I talk to them through Chat and Facebook. (WA parent)

When I’m on Facebook I can also chat to my friend [via Facebook’s chat facility]. The great thing about Facebook is, like, I can talk to all my family ‘cos my family is so spread out. I’ve caught up with all my Year Seven friends from school and we’re having a reunion at the end of the year (WA parent).

I use Facebook for communication with my friends and games. I made a new friend from Canada (Tasmanian parent)

… ‘cause I’m from New Zealand, I’ve picked up so many friends I used to go to school with, now, that have contacted me, and I haven’t been back for 10 years. It’s really good, I love it, and yeah it’s the best thing ever (Qld parent.)

Using the Internet for educational purposes was also popular with parents and it helped them in their own study pursuits, particularly courses linked to TAFE2 studies. The first example shows how the Tech Pack enabled a parent to do their studies at home rather than have to remain at the institution to complete their work, which was difficult due to personal circumstances. The second example shows how the computer has become an integral part of the daily routine for further study. The third example highlights the value of the home computer for nurturing family relationships and meeting the study requirements for a younger member of the family. All examples provide evidence of the value the home computer for family members, who previously had to find alternative, and often inconvenient, ways to fulfilling their study requirements.

Well I’m a full time student at TAFE and it’s helped me a lot. I’ve been at TAFE 6 years, so now I can take my homework home from TAFE and do it at home as well (WA parent).

I have come a long way since July. When we lost the password a few weeks ago I felt like I’d had my arm cut off. I could not operate without it. I probably use it more than the kids. I use it for everything but don’t use it for banking. I use it for my TAFE course, community services (Qld parent.).

My sons doing business at school, and he’s gotta do Excel. I’ve studied in Excel so I can give him… ah, give him the help with his Excel for school. And um… he’s been downloading, he’s been putting stuff onto his little… ah USB, and taking them to school, and making sure that they’re up to date You can do it at home, and you can take it to school, and then they’ll teach them the next step up, and then I’ll show him. I’ll show him how to do that, and then he’ll go to school and he’ll feel more confident with it (Qld parent.)

Types of use: What are the children doing?

The data indicated that for the students in the families there was an increase in activity in the following areas:
  • Searching the Internet for information for school projects and for personal use

  • Being able to participate in extra activities beyond the regular curriculum (e.g. Mathletics)

  • Communicating with friends, family and the school via emails, Facebook, MSN chat and other forums

  • Playing online games and being entertained (e.g. YouTube)

For many of the children involved in the Tech Packs Project clearly the most popular use of the Internet is for searching and researching sites for educational purposes and/or for self-interest. Social media were also heavily used. The Internet provided children with an opportunity to become involved in applications and activities that they feel are relevant to their school life and social world and gave them more confidence. The most frequent uses were for school research or study purposes with 83 % of all children in the cohort listing this as one of their primary uses.

The data indicates that a home computer has become a valuable resource for students’ in both their educational and social worlds. That it is well regarded by children and their parents as an education resource was highlighted in the survey as well as in comments that indicated one way in which work was made easier:

He’s saved documents into this computer so that for school work if he needs to go back and find something, he’s got his own little folder, that he knows he can go into that folder, get out information. It’s just things like that, it’s so many little things that you take for granted when you don’t have one. (NSW parent)

Another example was that it made possible their participation in additional curriculum activities, in particular, one program called Mathletics was cited. Students said that they enjoyed being able to take part in this online game at home from which they had previously been excluded. It was designed to encourage individual students to challenge themselves and demonstrate their own improved levels of competence via repetition and continued practice in out of school contexts. So in fact that increased amounts of time spent practicing Mathletics built up higher skill levels in the game. One parent believed the computer game provided ‘…a new opportunity’ for her son as she felt that ‘…he just needed repetitiveness, so him coming home and doing it there as well as school is good and will help his maths learning’ (Qld parent).

Having a computer as a social resource is also clearly evident from survey responses. Email (55 % of students), chats (39 %), and Social Networking sites (47 %) were all well used communication applications.

Online games for children are also very popular with 34 % of the total cohort regularly using Internet games for entertainment. This equates with one in every three children participating in gaming, which may initially be of concern for some parents and community members. However, there is evidence to show that the use of games and simulations can enhance pupils’ reasoning and decision-making (Romeo and Russell 2010) and literacy (Gee 2003).

7 Discussion and conclusions

Both qualitative and quantitative data and findings suggest that participating in The Tech Packs Project made a significant impact in terms of closing the gap caused by the digital divide. It provided participants with hope that they would be able to actively participate in both social and educational contexts. This was reflected in many comments but by one parent in particular, who stated:

We feel we have caught up with the rest of the world. It is good for our self-esteem to have a computer and an email address like 'everyone else'.

The data also revealed that additional benefits pertained to enabling participants to feel more positive about their connectivity and communication in the digital age. Their use of new technologies has meant that they reported feeling less socially isolated and more involved in the communities of practice that are relevant to their lives, both locally and globally. More than three quarters of the participants indicated that they were now better off than before and that their confidence levels in using computers and the Internet have increased considerably. This feeling of increased confidence with technology is an important one since participation and use of computers and associated peripherals is integral to functioning effectively in society today.

Specifically, the home computer has enabled them to communicate with friends, family, school and for business purposes via email and by connecting to appropriate sites. Participants accessed social network sites to gather information that assisted them to study and research as well as do things for pleasure in their leisure time.

In this way they were afforded increased opportunities for social engagement that included:
  • Feelings of social inclusion and connectedness; “keeping up with the rest of the world”.

  • Improved family relations and reduced stress since there was no need to have to seek out a computer to do basic educational and social tasks and this resulted in improved communication with extended family members and friends.

  • Saving money; using the computer for financial management, shopping and selling online

  • Personal enhancement; the opportunity to pursue further vocational study (Technical and Further Education) and apply for positions online.

These features in turn enabled both children and their parent(s) to experience benefits associated with access to further educational benefits:
  • These were apparent in that:
    • 80 % of students recognized the most important use of the computer as being for study/research.

    • they resulted in higher levels of achievement at school, greater ease in completing school assignments, and opportunities to pursue further study that were not possible prior to having a computer

    • 83 % of respondents reported being very satisfied/satisfied with having the computer and most gave their reasons as being related to increased opportunities for the children being able to do their school work using a computer as the main reason for this.

    • Confidence levels about using the Internet rose from 42 % to 74 % in the high/very high rating level

    It is evident that the home computer connected to the Internet had benefits across the family age spectrum. Predominantly, the focus was on families with school-aged children but the project also included participants who were retired and/or on a pension, those with physical disabilities and the longer term unemployed. It is important to note that for all the participants, the ownership and use of a computer and connection to the Internet, enabled them to not only seek out new information for pleasure and employment potential but also to participate in communities of practice that were not available to them previously.

    What remains as under-developed in terms of in depth exploration of the survey results are those aspects of online behaviour which might be regarded as problematic if their use should become excessive. For example, the survey results indicated that 19 % of parents participated in online gaming. While this can be classified as entertainment if under control, it warrants further investigation over time. Similarly, online communication made available by web 2.0 potentially creates problems if children are not aware of the dangers associated with meeting strangers online.

  • It would seem that the challenges associated with the project were accommodated and modified as the project evolved based on the recommendations from the evaluation team. Initially four main areas of concern were noted:
    • The quality of the computer: some of the initial computers were extremely limited in their capacity to do basic tasks and it was recommended that a basic standard of operability be established,

    • Connectivity had to be broadband (not dial up) in order to accommodate functional, contemporary uses for the computers

    • The training sessions needed to be community based and sensitive to the needs of the groups that they were catering for. Further, the design of the training sessions should cater for the range of experience from novice to more experienced and should be ongoing as expertise levels increased.

    • Help lines in a variety of community languages were needed to support families.

    The attention to these challenges have improved the outcomes of the project. It seems, in fact, that the difference between dial up and broadband Internet in turn became the boundary of the new digital divide. Dial up connectivity on slow paced machines was totally inadequate because the majority of Internet applications and functions that are commonly used today cannot be carried out at dial up speed.

    By the end of the 3 years it became apparent that there are still many issues that need to be incorporated and discussed in order to support low income families to access the higher levels of activity that characterise Internet use today. Today, the Internet is a participatory environment characterised by users creating content that is often shared locally and globally. The digital literacies and knowledge needed for this environment are widely regarded as necessary for effective participation and functioning in the 21st century. Raising awareness about the importance of digital literacies is essential so that participants can recognise the relevance of these skills in their lives. It is essential that these challenges be included in the design of projects that have as their goal increased access for low socio economic groups. This study has shown that a first step to social inclusion has been taken, but that we need to go beyond a limited conceptualization of access to one that considers new elements that allow for social inclusion. Kvasny and Keil (2005) note that “even with the best intentions, digital divide initiatives will have limited success if they ignore the context of use.” (p.8) They recognise that people are social agents and that their autonomy, agency and what they are able to do are shaped by a myriad of factors and structures that can facilitate or hinder their use. We have data to show that when provided with the equipment and opportunity people will embrace new technologies that enable them to do things that were not possible before in their lives. What is readily apparent now is that this is not enough. Reconceptualising the digital divide as social inclusion means that we need to go beyond the technical aspects to consider how inequities are reproduced and consider opportunities to build on the enthusiasm of participants in contexts that will enable them to become ‘power’ users (Kennedy et al. 2010) that will afford them the social and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1993) to participate in the contemporary world.

Footnotes
1

High School Certificate, a recognized Year 12 program on some education systems in Australia

 
2

Technical and Further Education—institutions designed to offer additional study opportunities such as diplomas

 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012