Digital skills in Australia: digital divide and social inclusion

This is part 2 of a 5-part series. You can visit part 1: Digital skills In the Australian context here.

Despite the importance of digital skills, there remains a ‘digital divide’ in Australia. The digital divide refers to the gap between those who have access to digital technology and have the skills to use this, and those who do not.

There are numerous reasons for this digital divide ranging from equity of access to learning capacity. As such, digital inclusion can only occur when each of these elements are addressed.

The problem of digital exclusion

Digital technology affects many areas of our lives, from social interactions through to the ways we shop, work and learn. As discussed in first part of this series, digital skills are needed across almost all occupational roles and within every industry.

While digital inclusion improved between 2014 and 2019, since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 there has been a decrease in digital inclusion. As a result, more Australians are now unable to access the digital technology and skills needed to participate in education and training, employment, and other aspect of life.

This decrease in digital inclusion comes at a time when governments around Australia are looking to decrease the unemployment rate. To do this, they will need to improve employment and education rates. As research shows, individuals who are digitally excluded will be further disadvantaged as they will struggle to access employment and education without access to technology and skills. Now more than ever, expanding the circle of digital inclusion is front of mind for many education and skills policy makers.

Affected groups and individuals

Some individuals across Australia are digitally excluded, and this tends to disproportionately affect some groups. Digital exclusion is connected to several interconnected factors that also affect other aspects of social inclusion. These include:

  • The cost of digital technology
  • Access to digital infrastructure
  • Capacity to learn digital skills

Vulnerable groups include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with disabilities, those living in regional and remote areas, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and older Australians. These are groups who are typically most affected by the factors that can cause digital exclusion.

Cost of technology

Digital technology, including smartphones, computers, and internet access, can be very costly. While there are some options for low cost or free devices, there are many people who continue to miss out on access.

With regular, ongoing access often required for activities such as education (both formal and non-formal), and searching for and applying for jobs, individuals who do not have their own devices can be left behind.

Access to infrastructure

Digital infrastructure in Australia, particularly in regards to high-speed internet access, lags behind most comparable countries. The NBN rollout has not yet been completed, affecting many regional and remote areas who do not have reliable internet. Even when the rollout is complete, there is reason to believe that Australia will continue to fall behind.

Phone coverage across Australia can also be problematic. This issue also tends to predominantly affect regional and remote areas. Without access to phone or internet, connectivity to work or learning can be significantly diminished.

Those living outside of metropolitan Australia are most affected by problems with digital infrastructure. This is one significant aspect of the digital divide within Australia. The digital divide between Australia and other nations is affected by broader infrastructure issues.

Learning new skills

Education and training in Australia rely on students having basic digital skills. These skills are taught in school, and it is expected that students will continue to develop them throughout their education journey.

Data from GAN Australia shows that people are more likely to go online to learn new digital skills than to use offline learning methods. This means that basic digital skills are needed before learners can access additional education.

For those without basic or generic digital skills, it is important that learning can occur in a non-digital environment.

Potential solutions

There is no simple fix to the digital divide that will enable all Australians to become digitally included. Solutions are needed to address each of the factors that impact on digital exclusion. These solutions must be implemented at national, state, and regional levels, within infrastructure systems, with access to technology, and within education and training.

Some key areas for improvement within Australia include:

  • Improvement to digital infrastructure, particularly across regional and remote Australia
  • Access to low cost or free digital technology for those who are unable to afford this for themselves
  • The availability of offline, basic digital skills training for adults
  • Improved education, training and upskilling for digital skills for those who already have basic digital skills

The next posts in this series will examine some of these solutions in more detail. It will explore digital skills training for employment, and issues around the mismatch between industry needs and skills development. The fourth part of this series will consider government policy for digital skills, and initiatives across Australia that aim to improve digital skills and reduce the digital divide.

Project funding

The report ‘Digital Skilling Situational Analysis Australia’ was prepared by Dr Mark Dean and Dr Peta Skujins from Integrated Information Service (IIS) with support from the GAN Australia steering committee for the Global Apprenticeship Network (GAN) and Microsoft Philanthropies.

Funding was provided by Microsoft Corporation. The material in the report and subsequent blog posts does not necessarily reflect Microsoft’s views or policies, nor does mention of initiatives or organizations imply endorsement by Microsoft.

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