Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 16-19)




  16. Can I welcome you to our proceedings. We were fascinated by Learning to Bridge the Digital Divide. Can you take us briefly through a thumbnail sketch of what you think your report gave to us in terms of what we can learn from it.

  (Mr Istance) The report was based on a conference that took place just before Christmas in 1999. It was part of a larger programme of work that has been going on in CERI, the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation in the OECD, which was trying to pick up some of the key developments and the key issues. These are now being furthered in relation to policy in the Education Committee, and I can say a little bit about how that will be taken forward in the next phase. The starting point was that there had at that time been increasing attention to the notion of a digital divide, but we observed that there was little hard evidence or sustained debate of that. We also observed that a lot of the discussion of it was very much about technology, about the technological aspects of a digital divide in terms of investment in ICT or access to advanced technologies, but that a great deal of what we are actually concerned about is capacity to use technology and differences in capacity to use new technology, and that a learning divide is as important as a technological divide. We also observed that the discussion tended to be often focussed on one or another sector, either the school sector or higher education or adult learning, and we wanted to bring together the different players in the different sectors. At the Round Table which took place in Philadelphia in December 1999 we had representatives from across those different sectors, and indeed across OECD and UNESCO countries. The result was the report that you have seen. An obvious question that everyone asks is "Is there a digital divide, or is it a divide that simply reflects other divides or other inequalities?" It seems to us that the answer to that is yes and no, that is, of course, it does reflect all sorts of inequalities of home background, of community. On the question of whether there is a specific digital divide, of course, there are differences in access and use and quality use of technology both in education and elsewhere which do reflect other inequalities and other divides. On the other hand, the importance of access to technology and competence to use it, the skills to use it—digital literacy, as it might be described—have become so important that exclusion from that is in effect an exclusion of a social and an economic kind. So it both reflects and is an important dimension of social and economic inequalities.

  17. So poor people do not have access to computers.
  (Mr Istance) Actually, that is what the evidence shows, but in terms of the income distribution, there seems to be a very clear division between the bottom half of the household income distribution in terms of household access to a PC and the top half of the income distribution, and income is in fact, in terms of home use of ICT, one of the clear divides.

  18. Is it not going to be like secondhand cars: as society gets more and more of these, the poorer people in society get the older models and trade into the market at that lower level? Perhaps they will buy a more primitive computer, a slower computer, but is there not evidence that there is that kind of creep-down in terms of access?
  (Mr Istance) Yes, I think so, but the question then is, is that a reason for not concerning oneself with it? It is certainly the case that there has been very rapid change in access to ICT, and in education there has been an enormous change in terms of schools, for example, investing in equipment. So whilst there is a gap, in some respects that gap is not getting wider, because there is an increase among all sections of the population.

  19. When we were looking at Individual Learning Accounts, this concept which we as a Committee hate is the whole notion of dead weight. Here we have this very innovative new tool, the Individual Learning Account. The evaluation of it—early evaluation, it should be noted—suggested that only 16 per cent of people were accessing Individual Learning Accounts—many of them for IT skills, but only 16 per cent had no previous history of education and training. Is that a problem you picked up generally across a number of countries or is that rather individual to the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Wurzburg) I can give you a better answer in a year, but on the basis of the discussions we have had so far, in particular in the Netherlands, it depends in large part on how well these different experiments are targeted. In the Netherlands in some of the projects they are making an effort to target on poorly qualified individuals, individuals who do not participate in training. But what also comes through is the idea that learning accounts by themselves, without some kind of supportive mechanism, guidance, counselling, to help people better understand how to use this asset, will not be very effective. On their own they are not going to be very useful. This is the $64,000 question which bears more examination. The Canadians are actually trying to do this with the random assignment experiment. It does seem that, if you can find a mechanism that gives individuals a pot of money to spend, it changes the question that they are dealing with themselves from one of "How are you going to develop your skills? What area do you want to become competent in? What are your career plans?" to a more immediate question: "How are you going to spend this pot of money?" At this point it is an article of faith among some of the people running the experiments; the people in Spain, for example. There was also an experiment in Gloucestershire which started in the mid-Nineties at one of the TECs there. Their experience was that it seems to be getting at people who were not participating before. It is not having an enormous impact. In the case of Skandia, the insurance company which on the one hand is selling a product as part of their insurance line but are also using it themselves, they found early on that the poorly qualified individuals were not setting up these competence assurance accounts. Then they trebled the company contribution for poorly qualified individuals and now poorly qualified individuals are participating in training activities at almost the same level as the average for the company. So it does make headway.


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