Churches help bridge the digital divide

Churches help bridge the digital divide

The digital divide, whereby people have less access to technology because of wealth disparity, is a widely discussed topic. According to people working with Australia’s lower socioeconomic communities, it’s a problem that is becoming worse during COVID-19. Insights took a look at what the Uniting Church is doing in this area.

Research into the concept of digital inclusion suggests that having access to technology and being digitally literate are essential parts of participating in contemporary Australian society.

As the OECD report Bridging the Digital Divide suggests, “The risk for some of being disconnected through being unable to participate in the modern economy is now acute, with participation conditional to a large extent on accessing ICT with confidence and competence.”

University of New England’s Len Unworth’s work suggests that digital literacy is part of a wider “plurality of literacies” and should be considered alongside the ability to read and write as what constitutes ‘literacy’.

Bec Reidy has witnessed what not having meaningful access to technology can do for members of a community. Ms Reidy is Centre Coordinator for Bidwill Uniting, a role that involves working with people typically living with high levels of disadvantage. Located in Sydney’s west, Bidwill sits amongst some of the most disadvantaged areas in the country. Shalvey, Emerton, Whalan, and Blackett rank three in the SEIFA index, while Lethbridge Park, Tregear, Willmot, and Bidwill rank at just two. Dropping Off The Edge Reports indicate that Mt Druitt has been ranked in the most disadvantaged five per cent of localities in NSW for many years.

According to Ms Reidy, her role involves offering people with a sense of connection and opportunities. She has worked to help people get involved in collaborative projects that bring change to their communities—but all of this has needed to stop during COVID-19.

This, Ms Reidy says, “means that many of the people that we support, and many of the residents who have been really involved in collaborative projects, have been isolated at home.”

This has been particularly difficult for people living in the area because they often lack access to the internet or a useful device to connect with others, study, or entertain themselves.

“Even when they are given or lent a device, they often don’t know how to use it and are forced to use mobile data which is expensive and runs out quickly,” Ms Reidy said.

“We have heard many stories of parents at home with their children with very limited ability to help them do their online schoolwork- families where a parent and five children have one mobile phone or one laptop between them. The schools have been doing the best they can, but it has been difficult for them to respond to the scale of the need, especially with global technology shortages during COVID.”

The digital divide was already a problem for the area before COVID-19, but the pandemic has emphasised the scale of inequity in access to technology and the impact that this can have on people’s long-term prospects.

“With most people on Centrelink benefits living below the poverty line, buying a computer or device and accessing an expensive monthly Wi-Fi plan are simply out of reach for most of the people we work with,” Ms Reidy said.

Another related issue is a lack of digital literacy: when people are able to access a device, they need to learn the skills to use it properly. According to Ms Reidy, “these issues further compound the inequalities that already exist.”

Bridging the divide

Bidwill Uniting initiated the drawing together of Wester’ly, a Western Sydney-wide coalition of organisations that are campaigning for better outcomes on the issue of the digital divide. The coalition’s website will launch in early August. One of their other major initiatives is a briefing paper that will launch alongside the website, as a tool for people to use to lobby politicians. The key ask is that politicians read the paper and advocate for digital literacy programs and policies within their party.

“We are playing a key leadership role within the coalition- convening and facilitating meetings and co-writing the briefing paper and website,” Ms Reidy said.

 “Together with other organisations, we are really leading the way on this.”

Parramatta-Nepean Presbytery is also getting involved in trying to bridge the digital divide, with a number of workshops aiming to help their congregations up skill their members for digital ministry.

According to Ministry Leader Rev. Dr Rob McFarlane, the Presbytery has seen the digital divide impacting many of their congregations, who represent some of Australia’s most highly-disadvantaged communities, and whose members struggle digitally in wider life as well as church life when face-to-face has not been an option.

“A number of our congregations who have sustainable online worship have assisted others by either advising their neighbours in a peer-to-peer way or by inviting people from other congregations to join in,” Rev. Dr McFarlane said.

“For some, this has been every Sunday with one acting as a hub for their neighbours. For others, this has involved alternating between which congregation is preparing worship each week, easing the burden and growing connections. While this may seem to be only about worship, the learning environment in our congregation has helped people of all generations “get online”. The motive and reward of being connected with their congregation has helped people learn skills for all of life.”

“From this early organic connection, we have had great support from UME who funded Josh Wyatt and Ben Pietor from The Signal Box to do a scoping exercise on our digital needs, and to offer tailor-made solutions.”

One particular part of this that is currently rolling out is a “digital mentor scheme”. Each of the Presbytery’s seven Mission Zones will have a number of people who will receive extra training to support others across the Presbytery.

  • If you know someone who needs help, sign them up to Leep’s Tech Mate mentoring program (with their permission) here.
  • For more information on Wester’ly and Bidwill Uniting, contact Bec Reidy here.
  • For more information on Parramatta Nepean Presbytery’s digital literacy initiatives, contact Rob McFarlane here.

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