The growth and widespread adoption of information and communications technology (ICT) has elevated the importance of digital literacy in our society. At the same time, it has shed light on the digital divide, which refers to the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not. As the internet becomes increasingly embedded in the lives of individuals, communities, and nations, it is more critical than ever before to ensure universal access.
Digital inclusion is a relatively new concept that attempts to address issues related to digital literacy and access to ICT. The Institute of Museum and Library Services defines digital inclusion as “the ability of individuals and groups to access and use information and communications technologies.”
Whereas the digital divide focuses on access to ICT (or lack thereof), digital inclusion is meant to be a practical, policy-driven approach that addresses the needs of individuals and communities as a whole. In this way, digital inclusion can be viewed of as a framework for addressing the readiness of communities to fully embrace the digital age. This not only has practical socioeconomic benefits, but can also serve to enrich the lives of individuals and communities as a whole.
According to the University of Maryland College Park, digital inclusion has three critical elements: access, adoption, and application. Together, these elements lead to the ultimate goal of creating a more digitally inclusive society.
Access includes availability and affordability of digital technology in the public sphere as well as the household. Adoption refers to digital literacy and consumer safety when accessing the internet. Application is the implementation of digital inclusion initiatives in education, health care, public safety and economic development initiatives.
Digital inclusion can be promoted in various ways. Government institutions, such as schools and libraries, typically provide free access to digital technologies including hardware, software and high-speed Internet. These same organizations can also provide digital content to their respective communities, as well as improve digital literacy skills through practical training programs and workshops. Integrating digital inclusion initiatives around community need areas, such as health and employment services, can also improve digital literacy and access to technology. This includes making essential services, such as education, employment, commerce, and government accessible through ICT or the internet.
As the digital revolution intensifies, governments, non-profits, and businesses will view extending access to ICT with greater urgency to create a more enabling and competitive society. The United Nations has already identified the internet as a basic human right that should be extended to all citizens of the world. In particular, the agency has declared “online freedom” as a basic right that must be nurtured by all nation states.
Despite being an advanced industrialized society, the United States faces significant challenges with respect to digital inclusion. More than 100 million Americans do not have access to broadband internet, a statistic that has profound implications on economic development. As the United States continues to shift to a knowledge-based economy, digital inclusion will be a priority area for policymakers at each level of government. By adopting a practical approach to digital inclusion, governments can leverage America’s vast technological infrastructure to create a more digitally savvy consumer and workforce.