Almost a year into my PhD I’ve been reflecting on my experience so far and how my journey has led me to Loughborough University. I certainly haven’t taken the traditional route, if there is such a thing as a traditional route into a PhD. With plenty of life experience behind me – I’m in my late 40’s – I commenced my PhD in April 2017 with the Mark Hepworth scholarship. I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to meet the late SBE professor but since starting my research I have learnt much about his work within CIM and have met and spoken with some of his former colleagues at Loughborough and others who knew him at events I have attended.
A special issue of the Aslib Journal of Information Management* was published in honour of the late professor in June 2017 and is well worth a read if you have an interest in information behaviour and information literacy. The first paper in the journal “Mark Hepworth: in memoriam”, written by our very own Professor Tom Jackson from SBE at LU and Professor Peter Willett from the Information School at the University of Sheffield, honours Professor Hepworth’s contribution to research, in particular his studies of information literacy, and people’s information behaviour and their information experiences.
My own research aims to build on the work of Professor Hepworth. The focus of my research will explore the information experiences and capabilities of people who were digitally excluded or limited users of the internet, who have received support from digital inclusion initiatives. The research for the first time will bring together the concepts of digital inclusion and information literacy to gain a realistic understanding of the information experiences of digital inclusion beneficiaries and an insight into the ways in which digital inclusion intermediaries and actors deliver digital inclusion initiatives, with a specific focus on rural communities within the UK.
Having previously worked as a researcher at a digital inclusion charity, Good Things Foundation, I have seen first-hand the implications and hardships faced by individuals and communities who are digitally excluded or limited users of the internet, often due to no fault of their own. To some people the notion that a developed country like the UK where ‘everyone’ is online and using the internet to do their shopping, manage their money, and arrange their travel and social life, has a proportion of society without access to the internet or the know-how of how to use digital devices, may seem incomprehensible. Yet according to the report The Real Digital Divide, 15.2 million people in the UK are either non-users, or limited users of the internet, of which nearly half (48.9%) are under the age of 65, dispelling the myth that all people not online are older people. The report also highlights the most pronounced indicators of non and limited use include age, disability, social class, income and the age at which people leave education. Then there is the issue of access to the internet in rural areas. Ofcom’s 2017 Connected Nations report states that 17% of premises in the UK’s rural areas cannot receive a download speed of at least 10Mbit/s compared to just 2% of urban premises, and 82% of rural premises can’t receive a 4G signal indoors compared to 36% of urban premises.
The number of times people have said to me “everyone is online via mobile phones/smart phones these days”. Well yes, the ownership of mobile phones is huge and growing but, as indicated above, not everywhere has mobile reception. Also have you ever tried to complete an online government form or write a CV on your mobile phone? It’s not easy. Ofcom’s ‘Smartphone by default’ internet users report, categorises those who only use smartphones to access the internet as ‘smartphone by circumstance’ as a result of their situations (often financial) leaving them unable to access via other devices.
People from all walks of life are digitally excluded or limited users of the internet including the ‘I Daniel Blake’s’ of this world. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s a must see. (CPWS organised a SBE showing last year). Directed by Ken Loach, the powerful film highlights the impact the ‘digital-by-default agenda’ has on those unable or unconfident to use the internet. Believe me, what the film portrays is happening, and is happening all the time, and while investment is being poured into the digital infrastructure of the UK and the Internet of Things, it has been left to a plethora of organisations including public libraries, social enterprises (often run on a shoestring) and corporate partners to help and support people, communities and small businesses to get online.
Having worked in research at practice level on a number of digital inclusion projects, my PhD will give me the opportunity to bring practice and theory together, gain insight from digital inclusion stakeholders and beneficiaries, and critique the current approach to digital inclusion within the UK. Importantly it will give me the opportunity to bring together the concept of digital inclusion with information literacy. All too often the focus on getting people online has been the introduction of infrastructure and the need for digital skills, yet I believe there is another important consideration, namely people’s information capabilities. This is their information literacy – the thinking needed before, during and after the process of finding information. I could go into more detail defining Information literacy but I think that probably warrants another blog. Information literacy was a research interest of Professor Hepworth and so I hope to do him justice by contributing to information literacy research from a digital inclusion perspective.
*Mark Hepworth: in memoriam”, Aslib Journal of Information Management, Vol. 69 Issue: 3, pp.258-260, https://doi.org/10.1108/AJIM-04-2017-0095