Digital exclusion revisited: Towards alternative policy approaches regarding the digital divide of the second degree.
01/10/2008 - 01/10/2014
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Digital exclusion revisited: Towards alternative policy approaches regarding digital exclusion


While in the late ‘90s digital exclusion was merely considered as not having access to a computer or an Internet connection and hereby not being able to use it, digital exclusion has now transformed into a highly complex phenomenon of often intertwined characteristics. Lack of access, motivation and skills and a leisure-oriented usage of ICT have become important barriers that hamper individuals to take full advantage of ICT. Issues like the influence of social networks and social capital, the participation in education and training and the role of lifestyles and life stages have come to the fore as decisive elements when analyzing the take-up of ICT by individuals. It is however no longer clear how all these elements relate to one another and influence – in a positive or a negative way – a meaningful use of ICT. At the same time, the risk of becoming digitally excluded has increased significantly due to the continuous integration of ICT in all fields of society.
Policy interventions have thus far mainly focused on expanding people’s access to ICT. With the increased complexity of digital exclusion mechanisms more advanced policy interventions are needed. Grassroots initiatives aimed at combating the digital exclusion of at-risk groups have been set-up by a large variety of civil society organizations. This has led to a highly scattered, disorganized and unidentified field of approaches to digital inclusion, leaving policy makers unaware of the scope, effectiveness and sustainability of these approaches and initiatives and of suitable ways to support and improve existing grassroots initiatives.

The main goal of this doctoral research project is to develop alternative policy approaches to counter digital exclusion based on a critical analysis of the implications for policy making of the transition in digital divide theory.

Focus therefore lies on the following research questions:

How have digital exclusion mechanisms evolved throughout the last ten years?
What additional elements determine the risk of digital exclusion?
How do these elements relate and influence one another?
How and amongst what population groups are digital exclusion mechanisms manifested?

What changes have occurred during the last ten years in digital inclusion policy and bottom-up approaches?
How has digital inclusion policy evolved throughout the last ten years in Flanders?
What approaches have been developed in the past ten years by grassroots organizations and at what level do they address digital exclusion?

What new policy measures can be taken to counter digital exclusion and improve current digital inclusion policies?
In terms of top-down policy measures?
In terms of support for grassroots organizations combating digital exclusion?

Theoretical framework

In the first place the theoretical framework will focus on the fundamental changes that have occurred in digital divide theory during the last decade. What new aspects have been brought about that influence and determine access, motivation, usage and skills? But also, how do recently identified issues like lifestyles, life stages and social capital relate to ICT-usage and the attainment of skills? Special attention will hereby be given to cause-effect relations of the identified elements. Whereas van Dijk (2005) puts forward a highly linear causal relationship in which motivation is considered a primary barrier that hampers people to get physical access to ICT, it seems that cause-effect relations have become more complex. Not having continuous access at home no longer implies that people do not use ICT. People who are not motivated to use ICT see themselves obliged to use ICT within their daily work environment. Individuals with the necessary skills and adequate access do not necessarily wish to use ICT in a meaningful way. This part of the theoretical framework will be the most elaborated and will also contain a theoretical discussion on the role of social capital with regards to ICT usage and skills. The end goal of this part is a new and more elaborated framework for explaining digital exclusion, with particular attention for cause and effect relationships.

In the second place the theoretical part will focus on adoption and domestication theory, the capabilities and social capital approach and how these relate to the bottom-up approach of grassroots initiatives. Rationale behind this is the assumption that domestication should be the finality of a digital inclusion policy approach as domestication refers to the complete integration of ICT-use within people’s daily reality. Once a technology is domesticated it has completely blended into people’s daily routines and in a sense its’ use has become vital and meaningful.

Empirical Research

The main goal of the empirical part of the doctoral research project is to formulate answers regarding past, current and future policy interventions for digital inclusion. Focus will hereby lie on the analysis of how digital inclusion policy and grassroots approaches have evolved during the last ten years. What has been their focus? What goals have been set forward and what means have been allocated? What has been the argumentative basis or rationale behind policy texts and initiatives?

The empirical research of this doctoral project is two folded and focuses primarily on Flanders:

1) A policy analysis of digital inclusion policy documents and strategies in Flanders during the last 10 years.

This part consists of an extensive analysis of policy documents of the Flemish Government in the various policy fields related to digital inclusion (education, poverty, innovation, wellbeing, employment…). In addition, several in-depth interviews will be realized with policy representatives. The main goal is to conduct an evaluation of the current digital inclusion policy of the Flemish Government and provide recommendations for improvement.

2) A critical analysis of the bottom-up approach used by grassroots organisations to address digital exclusion.

This part of the empirical research has partly been finalized and consists in the first place of an inventory of existing digital inclusion initiatives in Flanders. Via a quantitative survey 400 initiatives were questioned about their modus operandi (eg. number of computers, target groups, entrance fee…); their pedagogical approach (group size, type of coaching, type of learning material, learner or teacher driven approach…); and their sustainability (financing mechanisms, local embedding, partnerships…) This quantitative approach was complemented by a threefold brainstorm session with grassroots organizations on the most occurring barriers and problems to the implementation of digital inclusion.
In the second place, it entails an analysis of two bottom-up initiatives, namely Recup PC – an initiative by the City of Ghent, Digipolis and OCMW Gent, and a yet to be determined case.

The final aim of the doctoral research project is to formulate policy recommendations that will enable the Flemish government, but also other actors involved, to improve their approach towards digital inclusion