I wonder how I would feel if….
I was chugging along nicely in my own little world, having raised a family who were doing all right, paid my bills on time and stayed the right side of the law – maybe I’ve got a garden or an allotment – a social circle of like minded friends and am enjoying a slower pace of life – then along comes yet another government initiative telling me I have to get online. What if I’ve visited one of those online centres and tried a computer but didn’t like it – what if I don’t have relatives abroad so don’t need emails and webcams – what if I avoid supermarkets anyway – and prefer to shop on my high street where I can get everything I need – what if my budget won’t stretch to a monthly increase for internet access never mind the setup costs of the hardware and then the maintenance and upgrades and virus software etc – what if I don’t want my life digitally transforming – what if I like being the ‘wrong side of the digital divide’ – what if I just don’t want to be online…. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8136315.stm
My interest in online identity began in relation to gender and the ability to portray yourself textually as male or female. Second Life took this one step further with choices over visual appearance. For me, early assumptions were that online identity was something you played with; an opportunity for deliberate experimentation. Authenticity was rare.Contrast this with the situation today where across the sector those working in higher education use their online identity to network, share ideas and generally extend the working day. The assumption is now that this constitutes a reasonably accurate reflection of your working persona.
This is not without implications for the digital divide; the one that is less about technology and more about the ways in which it is used. If you maintain a digital absence between Friday 4.30pm and Monday 8.30am and (for whatever reason) don’t tweet, blog or have Facebook ‘friends’, then the chances are you will not have an interest in the construction and maintenance of an online identity, never mind any debate over the discursive nature of this identity.
The question here is at which point does the choice not to participate in a virtual extension of yourself begin to impact on your ‘real’ working world. Are we reaching a point where having an online presence is becoming seriously more advantageous than not – where online networking has greater benefits in terms of not just wider debate but off-line issues such as career progression? What does it say about us if we Google ourselves and find there’s nothing there? How do we feel when we work with colleagues who don’t ‘do all this online stuff’ – are we tolerant of their choice or increasingly frustrated?
I’ve visited this before and no doubt will do again. Earlier this year HEFCE released its revised elearning strategy; this clearly shows how education technology is becoming integral to the higher education experience not just for students but for those working across the sector. Yet levels of engagement remain diverse. I wonder if we are creating a new digital taxonomy and if so what would it look like? A topic for my next blog I think….
Blogs are fast moving and transient worlds. I didn’t agree with Martin Weller’s post about online academic identity – but by the time I’d reflected on a response he had also agreed it was too simplistic a definition – although for different reasons to mine. “Rather than suggesting your online and academic identities were one and the same” Martin writes, (here) “Your online academic identity will be a subset of your online identities.” Now the ways in which virtual environments allow us to play with and explore alternative identities have fascinated me since the days of MUDS and MOOS. If I were on Mastermind my specialist subject would be gender – a fundamental identity characteristic yet possibly the one we think about the least. So multiple online identities – along with awareness of danger and good management of risk – is where I’m at and I wondered if the risk of linking academic and online identity is that it both privileges and marginalises. Also when related to education it comes close to Fischer’s suggestion that the technologically illiterate teacher should be equated with a failure to read and write. Technology is only that simple to the technologists themselves.
The danger with conflating academic and digital identities is the assumption that one size fits all. We are currently awash with reports that promote digital environments; Digital Britain , the Edgeless University, The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age and assumptions that connection is the way forward. None acknowledge the difficulties of digital universalism. Sometimes I feel that in 10 years time I will still be saying ‘don’t forget diversity!’ I support virtual environments for the opportunities to widen participation across all aspects of life but many people need additional time, inclination, resources and assistance in access. In conclusion:
* I’m less concerned about the kudos attached to having an online presence.
* I’m slightly more concerned about negativity being attached to those who chose not to have one.
* I’m concerned most of all about those who are unable to participate in the first place.
I don’t know how monetary value (£1.25 million) is established but I do wonder how much technology is destroying work for future archivists.Recently in the British Library for the Henry VIII Man and Monarchy exhibition I looked at the floor to ceiling bookcases housing the Kings Library and wondered what we are sacrificing to have the speed and ease of electronic communication – if anything at all. Should we celebrate or challenge the digitisation of the book? Is the demise of the craft of book binding on a par with baking daily bread on hot stones; is achieving an outcome faster always an improvement to be applauded? Political response to the Luddites was the Frame Breaking Act whereby those guilty of challenging progress could be sentenced to death. What is the Internet equivalent in terms of resistance and sanctions? Occasionally the work network is down; a useful reminder of the extent to which our lives are online – as we tidy our desks and make coffee and feel redundant without our digital connections.
Technology may mean less to preserve in the future. Turning the Pages uses technology to preserve the work of the past and makes it more widely available by digitising some of the rarest books in the world. The digitisation of the works of Siegfried Sassoon would make them accessible to a wider audience. Art needs to be visible. Sassoon’s notebooks from WW1 have additional value for their first hand experience of the madness of war and the later problems of psychological damage and rehabilitation. For this alone they should be preserved and made available. We can all learn from the creative work of others.
But does instant Internet access to the product of human labour devalue it?Are we losing sight of the difference between the real and the replication? Seeing a digital image of a page from the Book of Kells is not enough; we need to know about the hours spent crafting a single letter, the conditions under which it was produced; the cold stone floors, the poor light, the preciousness of the gold and coloured pigments. Poetry is a product of the environment; Sasssoon was a man of his times. The digital page is only ever a part of the story and a danger of digitisation is the increasing separation from the human element – as well as the lack of letters and notebooks and other documents that still retain the human dimension and touch for future generations to reflect on.
The PM in his ”The Internet is as vital as water and gas..” article in the Times says in his final paragraph that ‘Digital Britain cannot be a two-tier Britain – with those who can take full advantage of being online and those who can’t.’
Considering this is where we are now, I watch the for the government’s next move towards digitising Britain with interest.
If you’ve ever tried to use an e-book you’ll know there are serious limitations; you need a reader, preferably portable; you can’t easily flick through the pages to go back to a specific sentence or idea, you can’t annotate the pages. E-books are increasingly being adopted across the sector and hyped as a cost effective solution to issues of space and availability. But let’s not forget that e-books are a visual medium and increasing digitisation of text is also increasing the digital divide and putting in place yet more barriers to participation.
Under the DDA public bodies are meant to enusre reasonable adjustments (so those with disabilities are not discriminated against compared to those without the same disability) in terms of access to services including libraries and information resources. But academic e-book publishers have no such requirements. As libraries increase their subscriptions to electronic resources so they are moving away from their duty to ensure equality. This issue was raised in a recent post on the JISC MailDisabilities and Technology forum for Tech-Dis [TECH-DIS@JISCMAIL.AC.UK] where Simon Ball, Senior TechDis Advisor, describes improving the accessibility of ‘e-book and e-journal delivery software’ as a ‘priority area’. With no disrespect to TechDis, the words ‘horse’, ‘ stable’ and ‘door’ inevitably come to mind. It’s good to see that they are working directly with the RNIB on this. Rapid adoption of e-books across the sector reinforces the invisibility of accessibility legislation and how addressing the issues continues to be a ‘bolt-on’ exercise rather than integral to new developments.
As a society we seem to be increasingly failing our more vulnerable members. The recent statement by the PM (following the publication of the Digital Britain report), that that a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as “an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water” and the proposal to tax telephone lines to provide it, is a classic example of running before walking. Weakness in provision of the fundamentals is then compounded by public institutions such as the British Library whose digitisation of newspapers project has resulted in commercial ‘pay-as-you-go’ access to the nations history. Instead of climbing up towards greater integration and awareness of the need to cater for diversity, the needs of the socially vulnerable seem to be sliding back down into invisibility.
The Digital Britain Report was published on 16 June; the 245 pages necessitating some form of summary version. The BBC ran an At a Glance page and Comments from Experts, none of which addressed this missed opportunity to ensure those to whom affordable, efficient Broadband connection could have the greatest impact in terms of quality of life were given priority.
“We are concerned however that neither people with sight problems nor disabled people in general are specifically mentioned at any point in the interim “Delivering Digital Britain” report.”
I’ve extracted some quotes that have particular resonance for the work I do supporting people with visual impairment to use computers and access the Internet.
In response to Action 17: Unless a service is affordable, it cannot be deemed accessible. Affordability is a particular concern for blind and partially sighted people, many of whom are among the poorest of the UK’s citizens.
In response to Action 19: This means that the issue of equipment accessibility has to be tackled. Too often inaccessible equipment, that assumes that the user can read on-screen information without providing a voiced alternative is the main barrier to uptake of services by blind and partially sighted people.
In response to Action 21: Many disabled people rely even more on public services than their non-disabled peers, for a variety of reasons. A blind person might well have greater difficulty in visiting their council, for instance, and would therefore benefit greatly from being able to access the council’s website. However, a recent EU wide survey found that only some 5% of public websites are accessible. RNIB therefore urges the government to take urgent action to improve the accessibility of public websites.
The need to address the accessibility of cost, equipment and content is a triple whammy that yet again fails to support the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of society. I struggle to understand how those with sight can so totally ignore the reality of those without this most fundamental of human rights.
I’m a minimalist type of person. I don’t like clutter and I like my online life to be similarly organised. Multiple login details are frustrating especially when they don’t work. For example when trying to access a hotmail account (to find login details which I’ve forgotten) I get the following message: ‘The e-mail address or password is incorrect. Need help? ‘I do so I click and am asked for my email address; it’s the password I’ve forgotten so I key in the address, I decipher the Captcha and I get the following two options: ‘Sendyourself a password reset e-mail message.’ No good, I can’t get into my account because I’ve forgotten my password. ‘Provide account information and answer your secret question.’ But I don’t recognise the secret question never mind what answer I may have given – so I give up.
It’s a similar story with gmail. Google docs tells me ‘The username or password you entered is incorrect’ and offers me a ‘I cannot access my account’ link. I select this and Google apologises for any inconvenience I’m experiencing and gives me a range of possible reasons. I select ‘Forgot my password’ and am invited to visit their password recovery page. Here I’m not asked for my email address – which is a pity because I know that – instead they want my user name – I’m not sure what that is but I take a guess, decipher another Captcha, and am told initiating the password reset process involved following the instructions sent to my ringassociates.co.uk email address. As far as I know I haven’t come across ringassociates before so I give up.
With MySpace – I get off to a better start: ‘Forgot Your Password? No Worries… Just enter the email account you signed-up with, and we’ll mail you your password’. So I try an email address, and then another, both of which are valid, but all I get is ‘No such email address was found.’
And that’s the end – no more offers of help.
I’m tempted to try Facebook but feel that’s enough rejection for one day.
I’m sure someone somewhere has collected all these attempts to automate the help process and I’m not sure if this blog is a sad reflection on my virtual organisation skills or an example of another battle in the war of the digital divide. Either way I’m logging off and going out for a walk instead.
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