How technology and digital skills can help the disadvantaged

We already know that technology has the power to help the less advantaged; this is not new. Research has shown that learning basic online skills, and having access to government services online, brings an average saving of over £1,000 per year per person. By progressing to more advanced digital skills – such as daily use of technology in a job – this saving rises to over £3,500 per year.

We also know that there are 9.5 million adults in the UK who are without these basic online skills, and that 46% of those are from disadvantaged groups¹. At Go ON UK, we are working towards a level playing field, where everyone who wants to benefit from digital, has the skills to do so.

As an example, our work with housing associations (HAs) in the North East, has enabled us to speak to some of those people most in need of digital skills. Together with the HAs, we are working to help those people who might previously have been affected through a lack of connectivity and skills, and ensure that they are provided with both access, and the ability to make the most of it.

Go ON UK has recruited over 9,000 digital champions in the last year alone, through our regional programmes in the North East, NI, and the North West. These are the people who inspire others to take their first steps online. Additionally, we have created, as a platform to help and support these digital champions; the site provides resources, and signposting to events and organisations than can help learners.
So that is where we are at the moment. Now let’s take a look a bit further down the road.
Over the next decade we’ll see the development of a new wave of innovative digital technologies, products and services – all accessed through an increasingly hyper-connected and globalised information environment. These opportunities will both disrupt and transform every aspect of our lives.

As our societies and economies become progressively more knowledge-based, the polarisation of opportunity between skilled and un-skilled individuals is set to grow exponentially – with rich rewards for those with the right aptitudes and skills, and unforeseen penalties for those who find themselves without.

However, while this accelerated pace of digital innovation has the scope to further widen the digital divide, there is also a huge opportunity for digital to be used to positively break down these barriers and become an equalising force. Inclusive access to digital skills and digital opportunities can democratise access to information and help bridge the gap between the most advantaged and least advantaged in our society.

Preparing the future workforce will begin with pre-school, primary and secondary education. To tackle this it is imperative that the curriculum is agile, regularly updated to reflect rapid changes in technology, and above all engages pupils of both genders at all stages of their learning journey.

Recent research from Ofcom has shown that more than one third of children under 15 in the UK now own a tablet, and this number will only rise in years to come. From a very young age children are comfortable communicating, networking and playing games online. And far from being trivial, these activities teach social, creative and problem-solving skills, all skills that will be needed in a future workforce.

We need to better understand the benefits that these technologies can bring to the next generation, and make sure that all children, teachers and parents – regardless of background – understand the opportunities on offer, and have the digital skills needed to benefit.

Disadvantage is often most visible in terms of reduced employment opportunities. In the modern labour market digital skills are becoming crucial for improving employability. Right now, 164,000 UK job vacancies, that’s 25% of all vacancies, are only posted online, and it is estimated that the UK will need an additional 745,000 workers with digital skills over the 2013-2017 period.²

Mobile solutions such as remote working can provide the flexibility to allow people to remain in the work place, and be self-sufficient. Digital skills can also help put previously disadvantaged people on a level playing field within a highly competitive market for jobs.
Being less advantaged impacts many aspects of life which many of us take for granted. According to figures from the Department of Health, whilst average lifespan continues to increase, so does the gap in life expectancy between those in in the highest and lowest socio-economic bands. This gap has now reached a seven-year difference between the least advantaged and the most advantaged in society.

Technology is an increasingly valuable tool in addressing this problem. Recent research reveals that when people manage their health with the help of the internet there are huge benefits; for example, a 45% drop in mortality rates, a 20% drop in elective admissions, and a 12% drop in emergency admissions.

So in a context where digital plays an increasingly pivotal role in every aspect of our lives we need to work hard to ensure that everyone has the chance to discover their digital potential. In democratising access to information, knowledge and opportunity, digital skills have a unique capacity to bridge socio-economic divisions and help us build an inclusive digital society. I hope together we can work to make digital an equaliser, not a divider.


1  Ipsos MORI BBC Digital Capabilities, September 2013, pages 3-5

2 O2 report – Future Digital Skills Needs of the UK Economy 2013