This post is co-authored by Zoë Vassallo and Ellie Nik.

In 2023, data collected from the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) reported 9.4% of Australians to be highly digitally excluded; a considerable figure at around 2.3 million.

It’s almost implausible that during a time when digital literacy is so fundamental to employability, a student in Australia in 2023 should be struggling to develop these core skills due to a lack of the necessary resources (e.g. access to devices or internet access). However, this is a reality for many students, as systemic and structural disadvantages continue to create a digital divide in Australia. 

What does it mean to be digitally excluded?

You might see someone scroll through social media, create a TikTok or airdrop a photo, and assume that they are not part of a digitally excluded group. However, it’s worth remembering digital inclusion’s nuanced nature and complexity. The ADII summarises 3 primary areas of digital inclusion; access, affordability and digital ability. So affected individuals may not only be battling against a lack of affordable access, but they are also being left behind when it comes to building the right skills to use technology. 

Remote learning during Covid shed light on the inequities in access to technology for many households in Sydney, with analysis revealing many students living in Western Sydney had limited access to the Internet and home devices. When access to devices is unavailable or limited, the acquisition of digital skills becomes challenging. This is a sobering fact considering basic digital skills are swiftly becoming essential capabilities in the workspace. There is little question that an unfair deficit is being placed on teenagers in these regions, limiting their future career opportunities. 

The Widening Participation space: supporting students from equity backgrounds

HEPPP-funded (Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program) programs within the widening participation space are playing an active role in addressing the inequities that exist in the student space. These programs work to improve access to tertiary education for students from underrepresented backgrounds. 

Strategic initiatives at UTS

UTS’s strategic plan includes Widening Participation in higher education, with a commitment to a target of 16.8 percent low SES student participation by 2027. This equity initiative in the UTS strategic plan has informed some of the programs being delivered by Student Equity Teams within the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion. Some examples of these programs include Pasifika, a program designed to support tertiary success for high school students with Pacific Island Heritage. And the U@Uni Academy, an alternate pathway program to UTS for students from LSES backgrounds. Among these programs lies the New South Wales Equity Consortium, which began outreach in 2021. 

Working with the New South Wales Equity Consortium 

The New South Wales Equity Consortium is a unique outreach program that targets junior high school students (years 7-9) in Western Sydney. It is a partnership among three Sydney universities: University of Technology Sydney, UNSW Sydney, and Macquarie University. The program revolves around the Imagined Futures unit, which was jointly developed by these institutions. Each university took charge of a specific cohort (MQ for year 7, UTS for year 8, and UNSW for year 9), employing a creative approach. UTS utilised digital storytelling as its creative method for outreach. 

By using Canva, a free platform available to NSW schools, the program enabled students to create their imagined futures. Our content creator designed booklets in various scaffolded versions, ensuring accessibility for all learners with diverse abilities. They were called standard and differentiated booklets, and were accompanied by teacher guides and lesson plans. The UTS outreach program had two notable components: providing digital devices (iPads) to schools and a cohort of student ambassadors who collaborated with teachers in delivering the Imagined Futures unit. Student ambassadors, typically from equity backgrounds but not exclusively, are current university students employed as casual staff to support Widening Participation (WP) initiatives.

The program’s novelty and the presence of student ambassadors likely contributed to student engagement, as highlighted by a teacher who acknowledged the ambassadors and the provision of iPads as crucial factors for the program’s success. Teachers in post-program focus groups collectively observed increased student engagement and noted that students kept asking “When are ambassadors coming [again]?”, which is indicative of that engagement. One teacher stated, “[students] felt empowered by the use of technology”. This underscores the vital importance for higher education institutions and WP units to persist in providing invaluable and captivating programs that proactively engage students, ensuring access to digital devices, and enhancing students’ digital capabilities.

Acknowledgement of the NSW Equity Consortium: The NSW Equity Consortium is jointly funded by partnering universities (University of New South Wales, University of Technology Sydney, and Macquarie University), the Commonwealth Government’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program and the NSW Government Department of Education’s Collaboration and Innovation Fund. The authors further acknowledge all individuals involved in the ideation, conceptualisation, ethics approval, delivery, data collection, and data analysis of the consortium.

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