Digital Futures webinar

Why are we discussing digital futures? Technology plays an important role in a rapidly changing context. Demographics are changing, new challenges are emerging among workforces, the prominence of digital has changed customer and consumer expectations, and all this in the wider context of Covid-19 where services were forced online.

Our speakers discussed the role digital has in this changing landscape, and particularly on those in rural communities. A big thank you to our speakers for the day Dr Vicky Johnson and Dr Sonja Rewhorn, Professor Gary Bosworth and Mike Emery and our chair Roger Britton.

Skills and development

IT is hugely impactful in terms of the presenting opportunities and the development of skills. Our speakers from the Open University discussed the role of technology in empowering people. By increasing accessibility for many, online teaching and learning opens new opportunities for many in rural settings who may face barriers in attending face to face learning sessions.

Dr Vicky Johnson and Dr Sonja Rewhorn, Open University, discuss some key findings from their study looking into whether their students from rural communities disadvantaged because of geography. The overarching findings found that most students were comfortable with online learning and even helped some who felt anxiety in new locations and when mixing with other students. Online was also found to be more convenient when fitting around other commitments e.g. family or child care. In less accessible areas, some felt that online provision enabled them to get involved in tutorials that they otherwise would not have been able to . While a small minority, some did feel face to face was beneficial in getting to know other students and their tutors.

Although this is generally seen as cost effective compared to face to face learning, it is worth noting that onlinbe delivery is still not cost free. Ensuring access is open to everyone is important, particularly with the evident digital divide. Everyone needs ability to access resources and access these from their homes.

The role of IT in addressing rural inequalities

Rural inequalities was also an interesting theme throughout the discussions. The links between IT and deprivation in rural settings is an interesting one, particularly in terms of addressing less traditional forms of deprivation including reducing feelings of isolation and improving mental health and wellbeing. IT is an important connector, particularly in contexts where infrastructure may be less connected. It is woth noting that while technology can bridge gaps and improve connectedness, it also presents additional challenges.

Speaker Professor Gary Bosworth spoke about specific rural need relating to transport, travel and connectivity. He noted the role co-working spaces are able to have on bridging digital divides by improving access to digital infrastructure, including both the access to skills and the reach of broadband, and used as spaces to facilitate digital training and education.

Rural proofing

Rural proofing is a key component of the puzzle and is vital to ensuring the rise of digital is sustainable in rural communities. It is fundamendal that digital advancements account for differences between rural and urban spaces and does not disadvantage communities based on their location. Mike Emery, Director of Digital Health and Infrastructure, NHS Herefordshire and Worcestershire CCG, noted some currently imbalances, particularly figures from Ofcom (2019) which note that only 79% of rural premises and properties had superfast broadband compared to 97% of those in urban areas.

Sustainability in the context of rural hubs can be a particular challenge but is one worth engaging with. Rather than starting from scratch it is worth thinking about the use of existing infrastructure in rural communities, e.g. village halls and churches.