Any council that wants to support the digital learning of its residents, must identify the ways it can make the most impact. Crucial to this is the identification of potential users.
Start with community groups
The reasons some people may need support with their digital needs may be very different, but some of these reasons may be connected. Therefore the approaches taken to identify potential users may vary.
Community support groups will be crucial in gaining access to potential users, which may also be linked to finding the best ways to provide digital support. The process of identifying potential users effectively can incorporate several different approaches, and if your resources allow, may include research into the people who live in your borough to find out their individual needs.
However, extensive research work has been done nationally which is applicable to most boroughs. So if you don’t have the resources, there is little need to ‘reinvent the wheel.’
The residents who require the most support will be those who for well established reasons cannot access devices and need support with this. These residents also need help with internet connection and other digital knowledge.
Most of these user groups will be affected by fundamental issues such as financial, physical, psychological, educational or age related. Because of this, they will often be served by local community groups and organisations that exist in the area.
With limited resources, the key to successfully identifying potential users is finding these community groups or organisations and coordinating with them to effectively locate those in need.
Identifying users through demographics
Within a borough, there may be very different areas with different characteristics. Targeting the right areas through volunteer groups which serve communities, can be used to identify people who may need help digitally. Local libraries, leisure centres and social clubs can be used as hubs for learning as they are increasingly being adapted to the digital age.
Older people are a group that readily spring to mind when identifying potential users. They may be identified through the locations or residences they occupy, and may be served by local charities such as Age UK.
Care homes and sheltered blocks may have communal lounges which can be repurposed for digital training. Croydon’s sheltered blocks were fitted with free wi-fi as a result of an agreement with a company offering broadband installation to residents in the area.
Schools and colleges are often well equipped with digital access which can serve students well. But many young people may live in homes that do not have digital access due to financial constraints.
Students in care may be particularly affected by such issues, and support in this area may be required directly from the council or in coordination with local organisations.
Those who have physical or psychological issues may not be able to access training in public locations, and may be receiving special help in their homes.
GP surgeries and health centres can also become important organisations to liaise with and find out what support is available.
Carers and home visitors may not have time to provide tuition but they may be able to help users access available support.
All of the potential user groups mentioned above may be affected by financial issues.
Digital access and devices may be relatively affordable for some, but for other groups suffering from poverty, they are simply not an option. Therefore a safety net of support has to be accessible to include everyone who wants to learn.
Community groups in your area, or even staff within your council providing social support for people with issues such as; food poverty or heat poverty, may be dealing with the potential users who would benefit from digital access.
Case study: Digital inclusion workshops at Croydon libraries
Before lockdown Croydon held a series of digital inclusion workshops at local libraries, kindly supported by a local IT company. The take up was good, and we hope to repeat these sessions in 2021.
Try, learn, iterate
It is important to note that there is no single correct strategy to identify users that need support. Digital inclusion is not nationally funded and what your borough can afford to do in this area may be heavily dependent on funding and/or other priorities. But it can still become part of other services offered and coordinated by a relatively small number of staff.
Users needs are often tied in with a range of other needs, most notably financial but not exclusively so, and therefore reaching out to other organisations will be vital.
As digital needs are connected with other issues, some of the organisations you may liaise with are not necessarily those most obvious. Social situations as well as support organisations may be considered. Cornwall Council set up learning hubs in pubs, for example.
Community representatives can become important advocates of digital usage, and local resident associations could be a useful way to identify those in need.
Important: Once a user group is identified it is important to think about how you can offer consistent and sustainable support otherwise it will likely fail.
One-off courses and schemes may inspire some users but once the support is not available many will not continue use.
Offering online learning without support is likely to be similarly unsuccessful with many.