Barriers to digital inclusion

Almost half the world’s population is online, which is a major achievement. However, there is still much work to be done. Those already online often do not fully utilize the potential of the internet. Those still offline, the 4 billion potential users, look different from those already benefitting from digital opportunities. Globally, the offline population is disproportionately rural, poor, elderly and female. Offline people often have limited education, low literacy (Sprague et al., 2014) and typically hold informal-sector jobs. To increase digital inclusion, fundamentally different strategies are needed.

There are four major barriers to digital inclusion (Schmida et al., 2017) which require a holistic response: lack of infrastructure, low incomes and affordability, limited user capabilities, and lack of incentives to go online.

While it is critical to address the first two barriers, they largely fall outside of the scope of these guidelines. Limited user capabilities are seen in the 750 million people who cannot read or write (Montoya, 2017) and the many more who are semi-literate. Beyond literacy abilities, most adults in low- and middle-income countries do not have even basic digital skills and competences (UNESCO, 2017). Across Africa, seven in ten people who do not use the internet say they just don’t know how to use it (World Bank, 2016). Even in Europe, 19 per cent of adults lack the literacy skills, and 45 per cent lack the basic digital skills, needed to function fully in a modern society (OECD, 2016).

Lack of incentives is another factor. This includes limited cultural and social acceptance of internet use, low awareness and understanding of the internet, and not enough available and relevant local content. Of course people who are low-literate and low- skilled do not constitute a homogeneous group, and each person does not exhibit all of the offline attributes. However, it is useful to recognize key characteristics of this group. While the major barriers need to be addressed in a holistic manner, a two-pronged approach is needed: to simultaneously design relevant and usable digital solutions that are inclusive of the full range of skill levels of users, and also work on improving the education, literacy and digital skills of users.

Reasons for focusing on low-skilled and low-literate people

There are three main reasons to focus on the digital inclusion of low-skilled and low-literate people.

Supporting literacy development

In the digital age, more than ever, literacy is the critical first step in the lifelong learning journey to improved quality of life, livelihood and work. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) devote renewed attention to the importance of literacy by aiming to ensure that all young people and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030 (target 4.6). A ‘literate environment’ refers to the contexts, conditions and opportunities that are particularly stimulating and supportive of the acquisition and use of literacy skills (UNESCO-UIL, 2017). It is important to regard digital solutions as enriching the literate environment in the sense that they offer opportunities for learning and practising literacy. This is called the ‘supply side’ of the literate environment, which also includes the world of print media and institutions such as schools, community groups and adult learning centres that support literacy development. On the demand side, if they add value to people’s lives through improved livelihoods, communication or even entertainment, digital solutions increase the motivation to learn literacy skills in the first place. The use of technology can also be driven by aspirations and social pressures to ‘get online’ and join social networks (GSMA, 2017b; De Reynal and Richter, 2016). Overall, digital technologies are becoming significant factors in enriching the literate environment from the demand as well as the supply side in sub-Saharan Africa (Easton, 2014). While digital solutions aimed at low-literate populations are not always focused on enhancing literacy as such, they play a part in creating demand to gain that skill. Where they do offer text, that of course does contribute to literacy practice, even if in small ways. And when people can create content through digital tools they are certainly engaging in literacy practices. It should be noted, though, that digital solutions should not replace traditional efforts to develop literacy skills and should be seen as complements to many literacy supports, including print media.

Increasing usage and uptake

Users with mobile digital skills are higher-level data users and have the confidence to move beyond a limited set of application ‘islands’ to more widespread use of mobile apps and services (GSMA, 2017b). As users become more digitally skilled they also teach others how to use the technology, creating a multiplier effect that drives further uptake (Donner et al., 2011). Thus, obtaining more skills presents the opportunity for increased engagement, higher numbers of users and, if services are paid for or data drives revenue, greater earnings.

Supporting development and inclusion

Digital technologies have been shown to support broad development outcomes, such as contributing to improved health care, education, livelihoods and civic engagement. While the digital divide is real for millions of people, digital technologies also offer the potential for inclusion. When digital solutions are developed for women and rural users, these groups which are traditionally underserved can be included in skills and livelihood development. Furthermore, digital skills are increasingly required in workplaces around the world. In developing countries, on average one-third of urban workers use digital technologies at work (World Bank, 2016), making investments in digital skills key to also advance the goal of decent work for all (SDG 8). In this context, the United Nations launched in 2016 the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth to scale up action and impact on youth employment, including by mobilizing a global commitment to the promotion of digital skills for youth.

Theory of change

Acknowledging the barriers to greater digital inclusion and the reasons for addressing them for low-skilled and low-literate users, UNESCO proposes the following theory of change:


General characteristics of low-skilled and low-literate people and technology

As context to the guidelines, it is useful to note that despite the many variances across and within communities, and while every user is unique, research (Thies, 2015) has revealed general characteristics of how some low-skilled and low-literate people use technology. These traits, occurring along six dimensions, are common enough to mention, and some of them may apply to the particular audience being targeted.


Low literacy is not just an inability to read.

Research suggests that low exposure to education means some cognitive skills needed for digital interaction can be underdeveloped. For example, low-literate users can struggle with transferring learning from one setting to another, such as from online instructional videos to implementation in real life. Second, they might find conceptualizing and navigating information hierarchies – such as app menus – more challenging than they are for well- educated users.


Low-literate users are scared and sceptical of technology.

Unsurprisingly, low-literate users are often not confident in their use of digital devices. What this means is that they are scared of touching the technology for fear of breaking it. Even if they don’t break it, they might be seen as not knowing how to use it, causing embarrassment. When they do use technology, they can be easily confused by the user interface (UI), which is usually designed for literate users. Further, low-literate users can lack awareness of what digital can deliver, mistrust the technology and doubt that it holds information relevant to their lives.


Low-literate users don’t use technology alone.

Low-income people often live in close-knit communities. Within families and communities, devices are often shared, which impacts on user privacy. Social norms and hierarchies influence who has access to technology, how information flows between community members and who is trusted. The ecosystem around the user has a profound influence on digital usage. At the same time, communal living also creates opportunities for peer-to-peer or group learning. When low-literate people use the device it may be necessary to involve trusted intermediaries, or ‘infomediaries’ in digital parlance, to assist, for instance to read messages, navigate the UI or troubleshoot the tech. These infomediaries are often younger family members, close community members or even people at institutions such as libraries or community centres. The implication is that the ‘target user’ is really plural – the node and all the people around them. The digital solution is really for multiple users and often to be used in group or mediated scenarios.


Low-literate users are divided by gender.

Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are women (UNESCO-UIS, 2017). Women generally use fewer mobile services than men (GSMA, 2017a). In South Asia women are 38 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, and are therefore more likely to be ‘sharing’ users. Husbands can be gate- keepers to their wives’ mobile usage, and cultural, societal or religious norms can restrict digital access for women, deepening the gender digital divide. When it comes to digital skills, women are 1.6 times more likely than men to report their lack as a factor limiting their use of the internet (Worldwide Web Foundation,2016). In short, for low-literate and low- income users, gender matters.


Low-literate users are driven by motivation and aspiration.

While successful digital usage is often attributed to good UI, research has shown that motivation is a strong driver for task completion. This is true for all people, but especially relevant when task completion is challenging. For example, despite minimum technical knowledge, urban young people in India hungry for entertainment content traversed as many as nineteen steps to transfer music, videos and comedy clips between phones and PCs via Bluetooth. In terms of livelihoods and living, the desire to sell crops for more, the aspiration to raise healthier and more educated children, the need to access government grants or apply for a visa, are the kinds of motivators and aspirations that need to be tapped to engage low-literate users.


Low-skilled and low-literate users are often resource-constrained.

People with low digital skills and low literacy are more likely to experience limited or unreliable internet connectivity, be sensitive to or constrained by data costs, and use lower-end devices. Each of the above traits has implications for designing and implementing digital solutions, as explored in the guidelines.