Whatever the new normal looks like, it will involve digital

28 Apr 2020 |Written by Jess Wilson


It feels strange to me that only two months ago, I was able to meet with friends for dinner, and today I feel quite comfortable having dinner with friends on Zoom.

Only two months ago, telehealth was mostly focussed on people living in remote areas of the country, and to access it you needed to go to a specialised centre. Today, my Mum has a telehealth appointment with her GP via smartphone.

Only two months ago, I was in the office with our team deciding how we best provide face-to-face support to the 10% of our community partners based in the largest bushfire-impacted area on record in Australia. Now, we are talking via phone and video about how we support 50% of our community partners who are planning to deliver digital skills programs online to people with limited digital literacy.

Over the last two months, COVID-19 has changed the way the world works, and it has highlighted the essential need for digital inclusion like no other time in the previous ten years. At Good Things Foundation, we have been working alongside government, corporate and community partners to respond, advocate and ensure that those who are most at risk can stay connected during this time of social distancing.

Connection to others is essential and many lack access to support

Nearly one-in-four Australians are struggling with loneliness as a regular part of their lives. Loneliness is a huge risk at this time of social distancing, particularly for older Australians. While we are all physically isolated, being connected to the internet can provide greater access to the community, friends and family.

For the last two and a half years, Good Things Foundation has been delivering the Be Connected program focussed on ensuring older Australians have the digital skills they need to thrive in a digital world. Our network of 3,000 community partners has not only helped people to improve their digital skills, but according to our progression survey, 77% of people who access the Be Connected program indicate that they have an increased social connection. You can browse some of these great stories on our website.

But with social distancing measures in place since mid-March, the majority of our network, including libraries, community centres, social groups, and men's sheds, are closed for face-to-face support. This led to an increased risk of older Australians becoming socially isolated and increased the impact of loneliness.

Community partner responses

We have seen people all over Australian communities respond to this, by connecting with their neighbours, looking out for elders in their communities, leaving notes in mailboxes. So, it is not surprising that with COVID-19 restrictions in place, our Network Partners have found ways to maintain connections with people in their communities by transitioning their delivery of face-to-face workshops to online programs.

Community organisations, like other sectors across our country, are pivoting to online delivery. They are using their creativity and passion to continue supporting people in their community. People like Stephen King from Central Coast Community Colleges, who started online delivery of his Be Connected program within 48 hours. Or Norminda Forteza from Australian-Filipino Community Services, who started prayer meetings via messenger to provide comfort. Or Cate Clark from Rokeby Neighbourhood House, who began streaming community cooking classes. And Trish Pye from the Tech Exec, who had 28 brand new people singing "I'm on Top of the World" on Zoom (in the image below). That is only to name a few, and it has been inspiring.

But, as you can imagine, helping people with limited digital skills to learn digital via digital is hard. It takes patience, a lot more time, and a clear focus and understanding about the real difference that this can make to people's skills and more importantly, their wellbeing. It also sometimes takes offline activity, like phone calls and printed tipsheets delivered with added hygiene measures.

It also takes resources and ideas. So, the Good Things Foundation team has been working hard to develop new resources, and deliver webinars that bring Network Partners together virtually to talk and share knowledge about how to deliver digital skills programs digitally. Doing all this while getting used to working remotely ourselves has also taken creativity and flexibility of finding new ways of collaborating, trust in each other and a strong focus on the difference this work will have to people in the community - but that's another blog.

Health and government information

Just before COVID-19, our Health My Way program kicked off in 70 locations across the country. The focus on supporting people to use digital to manage their health, could not have been better timed. Our partners have been helping people to get the right health information from a reputable source. Digital media literacy is essential right now, and so is the ability to download an app. If you don't know what an app is, let alone how to download one, then how will you participate in the government's recommended approach to our country's long term health and safety.

Access to devices and data

Of course, it's only possible to deliver digital skills support to people online if they have a device to connect on. Yet, 75% of our network indicated that access to devices for people in their communities was a challenge. So we have worked with our Australian Government colleagues to develop a new Digital Devices Grant for our Be Connected partners to enable community organisations to purchase devices to loan to people in need in their communities. This $1 million grant program will fill a real need in our communities across Australia.

But, the lack of devices is not just an issue for older Australians. It's an issue for families who are having to homeschool their children but can't afford a device. It's an issue for women experiencing domestic and family violence who can't contact support services.

So although we are excited that we have funding for this to help older Australians in some communities, it's not nearly enough.

So why is it important now?

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of everyone having affordable access to digital technology and the online world. Our friends at ACCAN worked hard to make sure people have affordable access, and it was great to see NBN's recent response. Telcos have also provided a variety of measures to make sure those most in need have access. The NDIS recently released an initiative to support people with disabilities to access assistive technology through their plans too.

The responses across government, corporate, and community sectors have been fantastic to see. Together we have been able to support people to stay connected during a very difficult time. But if we are going to increase digital inclusion in our country long term, this approach needs to continue.

We need to make sure that funding for programs like Be Connected is continued and expanded to support not just older Australians, but all those who are digitally excluded.

We need to make sure that access to technology and the internet is affordable for everyone. With the Federal Government's Digital Technology Taskforce currently looking at how to make Australia a digital nation by 2030, now is the time to ensure that we shine a light on success stories from these initiatives.

Working together, we can ensure that no one is left behind and that everyone has the skills, confidence and access they need to fully participate in our future economy and society. Whatever the new normal looks like, it will involve digital.