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MDX academic explores Britain's digital skills shortfall — and how to address it — in documentary and new book

Confidence and creative thinking are needed to ensure people can take full advantage of online world, says creative writing lecturer Josie Barnard

MDX Creative Writing lecturer Josie Barnard reveals her findings from a decade of research into digital exclusion, and how to tackle it, in a new book and a Radio 4 documentary.

Figures show that nearly a quarter of UK adults - almost 12 million people - lack the essential digital skills for life, while almost 30% of people use the internet hardly ever or in a very limited way. For her documentary Digital Future: the New Underclass, Josie travels the country hearing about people facing barriers to employment because they can’t send an application form, others who might spend up to half their weekly income on internet café charges to get online, and children struggling to write essays for school on a pay-as-you-go smartphone. As well as older generations, she examines the poor digital skills of young people who engage with the internet only through social media, and argues how confidence and creative thinking are needed for people to get to grips with the full suite of functions which computers and smart devices offer.

Her book, inspired by her own creative writing practice of shifting between different platforms from longhand to laptop to mobile, contains exercises and theory around building digital skills capacity. “When I started my research, I was amazed that there wasn't really anything out there to help” Josie says. “Given that digital technology changes so fast, everybody's in danger of becoming digitally excluded. You're trying to teach how to negotiate constantly shifting sands.”

The notion of the creative genius needing isolation from the world and new technology can’t survive the digital age, she says. Even in the short time since she first pitched the radio programme, awareness about digital skills inequalities has transformed. Josie sits on the Government's Digital Skills and Inclusion Research Working Group, alongside representatives from grassroots organisations and industry that are doing pioneering work in this area.

Digital inclusion and innovation are important for Middlesex, in the curriculum, across the University community and as a research subject. Among the University’s strategic aims for 2017-22 are to support digital literacy as part of a personalised approach to learning with an emphasis on practical, real-world projects. Recent cohorts of BSc and MSc Computer Science students have helped develop an accessible digital tool-kit for women entrepreneurs to assess their readiness to scale up their business, for the Pink Shoe Club’s Know & Grow project. And Childhood Studies lecturer Jacqueline Harding has, with the help of colleagues and students, produced a free pilot web TV channel, Tomorrowschildtv.com, to enable parents to mediate the digital lives of their children and to empower parents with digital skills.

Digital Future: the New Underclass was first transmitted on Tuesday 3rd September and will be aired again at 9pm on Monday 9th September on BBC Radio 4. Dr Barnard’s book The Multimodal Writer: Creative Writing Across Genres and Media, published by Red Globe Press, is out now.

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