Chapter 1: Definitions of Digital Inclusion1Introduction

The society we live in today is dominated by technology and most of us accept the discourse of fast and ever-changing developments in technology which have transformed, or have the potential to transform, the way we live and relate to one another. This transformation may, however, not necessarily be a positive one. Technology can be a double-edged sword. Warschauer, Knobel & Stone (2004: p.563) for example, comment on how technology can either reduce divisions in society or amplify them:

On one hand, if computers and the Internet are distributed equally and used well, they are viewed as powerful tools to increase learning among marginalized students and provide greater access to a broader information society… the other hand, many fear that unequal access to new technologies, both at school and at home, will serve to heighten educational and social stratification, thereby creating a new digital divide.

Digital inclusion, like accessibility, is a ubiquitous term that is rarely explicitly defined. It is possible to read a whole report or article and by the end not know exactly how the author is defining digital inclusion. The vagueness around the term means that digital inclusion is in danger of becoming a meaningless concept which at best is ignored, and at worst is rejected.Where definitions of Digital Inclusion can be found, they tend to embed within them an expectation or imperative that digital inclusion happens when all members of society are able to access the affordances offered by technology use (see for example Selwyn & Facer, 2007). Digital Inclusion is therefore concerned with addressing inequalities, where those unable to access the affordance of technologies are, disadvantaged, marginalised in society and therefore digitally excluded. In addition to equality, explicit and implicit definitions of digital inclusion encompass a number of inter-related concepts

  • Access
  • Use
  • Empowerment
  • Participation

12Access and Digital Inclusion

Access in the context of digital inclusion is generally discussed in relation to access to technologies. The label given to these technologies varies and includes ICT, digital technologies and e-services. Underneath these umbrella terms a range of technologies are included such as mobile phones, personal digital assistants, computers, the Internet, broadband connection and digital TV.

The UK government distinguishes between direct and indirect access, where direct access is understood as access to technologies and indirect access is understood as access to services, which are facilitated through access to technologies (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2005; HM Government, 2008). The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2005) for example talks of ‘multi-channel’ access to services, where services can be accessed and delivered through digital TV, mobile phones and the Internet.

The Future Lab report ‘’Using digital technologies to promote inclusive practices in education’, commissioned by Becta, does not explicitly define digital inclusion, but it does categorise types of technologies and give examples of a range of technologies in action in an educational context. These include camera phones, web publishing tools, games consoles, PDA’s, e-babies, camcorders, web-based thinking tools, voice synthesisers, text to speech software, and e-portfolios (Walker & Logan, 2009). Writing in the context of learning difficulties, Abbott (2007) distinguishes between technologies for training and rehearsal, technologies that assist learning and technologies that enable learning.

Understanding digital inclusion as being about the provision of equipment leads to two key issues that are frequently encountered in digital inclusion projects. Firstly, the issue of whether or not to provide state of the art technologies and secondly the issue of maintaining and updating technologies once they have been provided. Arguing on the basis of equity, Damarin (2000) proposed a principle of parsimony for digital inclusion projects in education, in which educators seek to use the least costly tool, which may not necessarily be ‘state of the art’, in order to enable their students to make “optimal use” of the technological resources available to them both at school, at home and in the community. Damarin’s proposal essentially warns of the dangers of setting up inequities in access, where students have access to high tech resources in one location, but do not have similar access in other locations that play an important part in their lives. The maintenance and updating of technological resources can become a particular issue for digital inclusion activities that are set up using ‘short term’ one-off investments which tend to flounder in the long term due to a lack of recurrent spending and commitment. This can result in users who were initially digitally included, becoming digitally excluded, due to failing or out of date technologies. This is something that the Association for Learning Technology warn about in their response to the Governments consultation paper on ‘Delivering Digital Inclusion’ (HM Government 2008). They argue that digital inclusion activities need to be permanent and that ‘short term” special” digital inclusion projects and “fixes” only serve to reinforce differences and divides’ (ALT, 2009: p7). In other words access needs to be sustained.

Conceptualising digital inclusion as involving access to technologies also raises important issues relating to technological determinism, the digital divide and the complexities of bringing about change in inequalities. Technological determinism relates to the idea that the mere provision or presence of technologies is all that is required to bring about digital inclusion and therefore transformation for individuals or communities. The ‘digital divide’ is as common a concept as ‘digital inclusion’ and is frequently associated in both educational and non-educational sectors with talk of the ‘have’s and have not’s’; those who have access to technologies and those who do not (see for example Damarin 2000; Ching, Basham & Jang, 2005). Warschauer (2003: p42) argues that the ‘simple binary of the technology have and have not’s does not compute’. He gives the example of Bill Gates who donated a vast amount of technological equipment to rural libraries in the US in the hope of stemming a rural exodus. Warschauer notes that whilst this initiative did serve to improve the daily lives of those who used the libraries; the exodus continued. He suggests that this was because other factors such as unemployment were influencing the community. He uses this example to argue against viewing digital inclusion in narrow terms:

Well-intentioned programs often lead in unexpected directions, and the worst failures occur when people attempt to address complex social problems with a narrow focus on provision of equipment (Warschauer 2003: p44)

The limited usefulness of conceptualising digital inclusion solely in terms of access to technologies is further exemplified by UK government policy documents, which in addition to talking about access to technologies, also talk of the importance of personal and skilled advisers who can help excluded people gain access to e-services. Access to people is therefore acknowledged as being as important as access to technology, albeit for the government at least, on a temporary basis:

This [direct access] requires people to have the motivation, skills and opportunity to engage in technology. Until they become self-sufficient users, they may initially be supported through an intermediary, such as a school or UK online centre, or community Volunteer. (HM Government, 2008: p9)

Whether or not access to people is as important as access to technology in order for digital inclusion activities to be successful is an issue that is certainly worthy of further debate (see section on empowerment).

3Use and Digital Inclusion

Use in the context of Digital Inclusion is usually understood in relation to individuals using, or being able to use, the technologies that they have access to. Commentators therefore frequently categorise and discuss the digital competencies and literacies that are needed in order for people to be digitally included. Morse (2004: p267) for example, argued that ‘every student must develop basic technology literacy skills to be afforded the opportunity to become a full participant in our society’. Livingstone, Bober, and Helsper (2004) mapped children and young people’s internet literacy and showed that the more internet literacy skills children had, the more Internet opportunities they took up. Crawford and Irving (2007) argued for the inclusion of information literacy in any consideration of digital inclusion in Scotland.

Just as technology access as a concept has been frequently over-simplified; so too, has technology use. There is however, a growing recognition that issues such as quality of use, best use, meaningful use and non-use need to be addressed. Quality of use and therefore levels of digital inclusion might sometimes be related to the nature of technologies being used. Selwyn & Facer (2007) give the example of the potential difference between searching the World Wide Web on a mobile telephone and searching it using a desktop PC. They suggest therefore that quality of use can vary considerably depending on issues such as technology platform or level of connectivity (e.g. broadband).

Selwyn and Facer (2007: p14) also talk of making the best use of technology or “smart use”, where smart use is defined as making use of technologies as and when appropriate:

Digital inclusion is not therefore simply a matter of ensuring that all individuals make use of ICTs throughout their day-to-day lives, but a matter of ensuring that all individuals are able to make what could be referred to as ‘smart’ use of ICTs, ie using ICTs as and when appropriate

Understanding what influences use and therefore digital inclusion, is likely to involve more than understanding barriers to the acquisition of skills or competences. It is likely to involve understanding an array of factors that influence the decisions that people make about when technology use is appropriate or meaningful in their lives.

A lack of meaningful use … is not necessarily due to technological factors … or even psychological factors … engagement with ICTs is based around a complex mixture of social, psychological, economic and, above all, pragmatic reasons. (Selwyn, 2004, p.349)

starting to find interesting results in relation to use or non use of technology. For example, Livingstone and Helsper (2007) have identified what they call gradations of use with children and young people. In a study exploring why adults do not use computers in their daily lives, Selwyn (2006) identified a hierarchy of engagement with technology; ranging from absolute non-users, to lapsed users and rare users. Pragmatism and perceived lack of relevance or “fit” with current life were recurring themes when exploring reasons behind level of technology use. Results like this suggest a need to further our understanding of how the choices that people make regarding the nature and extent of their technology use might be influenced by technological factors (e.g. issues of access); personal factors (e.g. skill levels) or contextual factors (e.g. “life-fit”).

The studies by Livingstone & Helsper (2007) and Selwyn (2006) are significant for two important reasons. Firstly, they are significant because they link digital inclusion to concepts of empowerment (i.e. exerting control and choice over technology by making decisions about appropriate or meaningful technology use). Secondly, they are important because they challenge some prejudices. For example, if an individual has access to technology but does not use it, there can be a tendency for non-use to be perceived as problematic and for the non-user to be labelled as deficient or lacking in something, usually digital competencies or literacies.

A study by Seale, Draffan and Wald (in press) on the e-learning experiences of disabled students at university provides a nice example of how non-use might potentially be a positive phenomenon. Using a range of participatory methods, they found that whether and how disabled learners used technology to support their learning depended on their digital agility and digital decision-making. The students ‘digital agility’ was evidenced by their high confidence levels in relation to using technologies; high familiarity levels with a range of generic and specialist technologies and wide range of strategies for making technologies work for them. Their decisions about technology use were influenced by a range of considerations including: what the affordances of the technology were; whether or not the technology in question “was the right tool for the job”; whether the technology was perceived to work or be impressive; whether the technology had a “study fit” and was aligned with the ways they felt they needed to study and whether the benefits of using the technology outweighed any perceived costs. Sometimes the results of this decision-making would be that students would decide not to use technologies. Whilst non-use in this example, can be linked to skills and abilities, it cannot necessarily be linked to skill deficiencies. Seale, Draffan and Wald (in press) for example suggest that the way the students made these decisions reflected a skilful, ‘strategic fluency’. They argue:

The digital agility of the students … is significant in terms of encouraging practitioners not to view all disabled students as helpless victims of exclusion. Digital inclusion does not always have to be understood through the dual lenses of deficits and barriers. Digital inclusion in higher education therefore, will not always be about practitioners opening the door and/or teaching disabled students how to step over the threshold. Sometimes, digital inclusion might be about disabled students using their considerable digital agility to “break and enter” on their own terms.

4Participation and Digital Inclusion

If digital inclusion is about reducing disadvantage in society and addressing, through technology, the needs of those who are marginalised in society then participation features strongly in its conceptualisation. Becta (2001:p2) link social inclusion to citizenship and participation and argue that:

Equality of access, skills and aspirations are essential to ensure that the gap between information rich and poor does not extend to gaps in access to electronically based participatory mechanisms.

Cook and Light (2006) see participation as fluid, but moving beyond e-voting (citizenship and civic engagement) to include e-learning. Participation in education is also emphasised by Damarin (2000: p17) who talks of educators having the responsibility to ensure students can become “full participants in the current information age”. Cook and Light (2006) also challenge us to consider whether a distinction should be made between active and passive participation; where passive participation could be viewed as being on the receiving end of e-services and active participation could be viewed as having an influence on the way technologies are used:

The nature of participation in our view is fluid, moving beyond e-voting and the provision of e-government services to include participation in e-learning –and that includes participation in the way society shapes the technologies that are developed for learners, citizens and consumers. (Cook & Light, 2006: p51)

…as a minimum, a citizen needs to be able to, and feel confident in their own ability to, use a search engine and to send an email before they can make use of e-government services. But this still leaves most citizens as recipients of the services that ‘enlightened’ providers see fit to offer, rather than fully included, self-determining participants in a digital society. (Cook & Light, 2006: p52)

5Empowerment and Digital Inclusion

The reference to self-determination made by Cook & Light, alerts us to the fact that digital inclusion and empowerment are often perceived as being associated. The government for example in its consultation paper on Digital Inclusion talked of technology being a ‘vehicle for empowerment, rather than a force for further exclusion’ HM Government (2008: 5). In their consultation paper, the government appear to link empowerment to notions of independence. For example, in the earlier section on access and digital inclusion we have already seen how the government hopes that people will develop the right level of skills to mean they will eventually become self-sufficient and not require any human support to use technologies. The consultation document goes on to propose a Digital Inclusion Charter which has enshrined in it the principle of ‘Citizen and community empowerment’, where the most disadvantaged citizens and communities are assisted and motivated to “achieve increased independence and opportunity through direct access to digital technology and skills” (HM Government, 2008: 61).

The motivations for linking independence to empowerment are worth examining in order to assess what the perceived benefits or outcomes of digital inclusion are. It is possible, for example, that independence is expected so that individuals cease to be a burden to society and usefully contribute to society (see Chapter 2 on Why Digital Inclusion is important). It is worth noting here, however, that many inclusion and disability advocates reject the notion that independence is about self-sufficiency, arguing instead that it is about being able to take control over ones’ life and choose how that life should be led (Barnes 1991: 129). By linking empowerment to self-sufficiency and independence there is a danger that digital inclusion will be too closely linked to notions of skills deficits or deficiencies without also acknowledging that empowerment be a result of recognising the strengths, motivations and resourcefulness that many digitally excluded people bring with them when accessing and using technologies (Seale, Draffan & Wald 2008).

Reflecting the results of the Seale, Draffan & Wald (in press) study, Selwyn and Facer (2007: p4) offer a definition of digital inclusion that stresses both empowered choices and available resources, where resources is understood in broader terms than just technological equipment:

..we argue that government should seek to…Enable all individuals to make informed and empowered choices about the uses of ICTs whilst ensuring these individuals have ready access to the resources required to enable them to act on these choices.

16Digital inclusion is multi-faceted

Our discussion of the different concepts that are linked to digital inclusion suggest that digital inclusion is both complex and multi-faceted. For example, The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) assert that:

…digital divides involve a complex web of interconnected social, economic and cultural factors that cannot be fully captured by a definition that focuses solely on access or ownership (Becta 2001: p4)

Digital Inclusion is therefore as much a social, cultural and cognitive concept or phenomena as it is a technological one. For example, van Dijk (2005) sees successful engagement with ICTs as being contingent on the following aspects of resourcing:

  • temporal resources (time to spend on different activities in life)
  • material resources above and beyond ICT equipment and services (e.g. income and all kinds of property)
  • mental resources (knowledge, general social and technical skills above and beyond specific ICT skills)
  • social resources (social network positions and relationships – e.g. in the workplace, home or community)
  • cultural resources (cultural assets, such as status and forms of credentials).

17Digital inclusion is about opportunities, outcomes and practices

Conceptualising digital inclusion as being about access, prompts us to acknowledge that digital inclusion in part involves providing equality of opportunities so that all members of society can benefit from the affordances that technologies offer. Conceptualising digital inclusion as being about use and empowerment, prompts us to acknowledge that digital inclusion is also about equality of outcome. Selwyn (2004: 351) for example notes:

On the one hand, we are concerned with inequalities of opportunity to access and use different forms of ICT. On the other hand, we are concerned also with different inequalities of outcome resulting either directly or indirectly from engagement with these technologies

Conceptualising digital inclusion as being about both opportunities (A) and outcomes (B), prompts us to consider the question: “how we get from A to B?” It is therefore significant that commentators such as Walker & Logan (2009) and Abbott (2007 p6) talk of inclusion practices. Abbot for example, argues:

It is much more appropriate to talk about e-inclusion practices, a term which emphasises the interaction between digital tools, contexts and people, and focuses attention on the activity of the use of digital technologies…it is this wider understanding of the interaction between digital technologies, contexts and people which is now often, and more accurately, described as e-inclusion.

8Why are definitions of Digital Inclusion important?

Definitions of Digital Inclusion are important for both practice and research. If digital inclusion is understood as multi-faceted then digital inclusion practices will probably need to reflect this in order to be successful and digital inclusion research will also need to develop sophisticated measurements of the relative success of digital inclusion initiatives that can cater for a wide range of influencing factors. As Damarin (2000; p18) warns, there are dangers for digital inclusion research in viewing digital inclusion too simplistically:

Counting the presence of computers in the homes of females as sufficient ignores documented sex differences in the use of technologies, a difference which is not eradicated simply by increasing the number of websites designed for female shoppers.

This leads us to some important questions that I would like to throw open to members of the TEL Digital Inclusion Forum to comment on and debate:

  • What definitions of digital inclusion have been/are being used in your work contexts?
  • Do they reflect conceptualisation presented here in relation to access, use, equity and empowerment, if not, what other concepts are embedded in your definitions?
  • How helpful are these definitions in terms of moving either practice or research forward?
  • Should we aspire to one commonly accepted definition of Digital Inclusion in Technology Enhanced Learning practice and research?

In Chapter 2 of this commentary, I will go on to discuss in more detail why digital inclusion is considered, by a range of stakeholders, to be important and therefore worthy of so much attention.


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