The digital disconnect

Who is fully participating in digital technologies?

Digital disconnect book cover

“Some people didn’t have access – they weren’t full citizens. For others, pure access wasn’t enough – you can have the technology but not know how the digital world works.”

In this month’s reading group we’ll discuss digital inequality of participation – access, know-how, use, and outcomes. We’ll draw on the work of Ellen Helsper, Professor of Digital Inequalities in the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE, published in her recent book ‘The digital disconnect: the social causes and consequences of digital inequalities‘. The book does not have a particular focus on higher education but it is very concerned with learning and highly relevant to the circumstances in which education happens.

  • If you’re strapped for time, read the Introduction, Chapter 4 and Conclusions.
  • If you can’t get hold of the book itself, you can watch Ellen talk about it in her RIDE 2021 keynote.


Technologies in digital societies aren’t ends in themselves – they bring access to economic, cultural, political and personal resources. Correspondingly, they have economic, cultural and political contexts, and people tend to use them to gain benefits in the areas where they already have access to resources. This reveals marked historical inequalities. The book emphasises a distinction between operational, functional skills (the applied sciences approach to driving a technology as intended) and interactional, critical and creative skills which bring power, purpose, agency and voice to technology use. These latter skills are often naturally acquired in less controlled, informal environments. There is a second-level digital divide, beyond access, in the ability to learn through technology, partly to do with whether what you find there – typically created by confident elites – relates to your world sufficiently that it stimulates you to build on it. This in turn leads to systematically different outcomes for different groups depending on socio-economic background.

Ellen contributes a definition of digital literacy as:

The opportunity and ability to use ICTs (or decide not to use them) in ways that allow individuals to obtain beneficial outcomes across all domains of everyday life and avoid negative outcomes for themselves and others, now and in the future.

Some questions to consider

  • In your own workplace, what particular examples of digital inequalities can you think of (work or study, formal or informal)?
  • How does Ellen Helsper’s digital literacy definition compare with others you know of e.g. the one at your institution?
  • Do you have any ideas for measuring digital literacy, beyond intensity of use?
  • Given growing evidence that confidence with digital tech predicts use (rather than the other way round), one theme in the book is the role of informal settings in acquiring confidence. How might higher education enable these – particularly for students from marginalised backgrounds – without deadening them?
  • Given that the content of the web tends to be created by confident elites (including in academia), what structures or facilitation do you think might engender a sense of collective responsibility for our influence on the lives of those outside our echo chambers, including future generations?

Optional further reading

If you are interested in how similar concerns were raised back in the mid 90s when networked technologies were very new, read New London Group (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60–92.

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