We are excited to see submissions to the Widening Participation 2018 conference on the theme of Digital Inclusion. Education increasingly requires students to be comfortable users of digital technology. Opportunities to develop digital literacies are increasingly valued, but are unevenly distributed. Furthermore, technology always provides us with new ways to reach audiences of learners, and for them to interact with each other. The intertwining of these threads can be seen to create a plethora of emergent barriers, or exciting opportunities for innovative action on widening participation. Either way, it places participation in education at the heart of debates around technology in society.

It is easy to become drawn into sweeping statements on the influence of digital technology, or the ways in which particular groups of people do, or do not, make use of it. But then I often come across an example that reminds me that the reality is far more nuanced and fluid than any of the prevailing narratives. Some things change very rapidly, others seem to change slowly or not at all. Digital technologies are ever more embedded into everyday lives. It would be great to use the conference as a chance to explore where and how the mainstreaming of online services and platforms is creating benefits, and where has replicated or amplified existing differences in society.

Digital inclusion has been presented by UK Government as the goal of supporting everyone to take advantage of the opportunities of the Internet. The challenges identified are to increase access, skills, motivation, and confidence amongst the population. There is recognition that focusing on access to technology alone is not enough. While we must continually engage with emerging technologies in order to understand them, we should be firmly grounded in work with people and communities. We welcome projects that take a broad view of digital inclusion, but also those that really look to serve a particular group by understanding their context and relationships with technology.

Responding to challenges such as these requires us to talk across disciplines and roles. At The Open University, support for disabled students is one area where it is imperative to facilitate joined-up engagement across the institution. Partly because of the pace of technological change, this work is never complete and there is always more to do. But what appears essential is to get experts in technical development in the same room as academics, front line support, and managers from all relevant units, to keep talking and exploring the intersections between people, technologies, activities and resources.

We also like to ground our approach to challenges like this with the participation of our students, and work with student-led communities such as the Disabled Students Group. They have developed an inspiring online learning community where students feel comfortable to talk and learn from each other. It would be great to see presentations and discussions at the conference that explore the ways in which online communities such as this offer effective peer support, and could develop a confident sense of identity and belonging in learners.

To highlight just one more of the areas of interest, it is timely to consider how technology supports us to capture and analyse data in new ways. Learning Analytics can show us where gaps in attainment appear. It could also be applied to identify barriers and pressure points to widening participation in greater detail and scale. At the same time, a critical and ethical focus on the use of analytics is necessary to avoid this becoming a further process through which education excludes or favours particular groups.

Finally, I’m hopeful that contributions within or outside of these topics create a new or different understanding of what digital inclusion means. Prompts to unpick and rethink our conceptions of this concept are very welcome indeed!

Visit the conference webpage for details on how to submit a paper and register. The deadline for submissions is 1st December 2017.

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