Background to Connecting Scotland
Connecting Scotland is a Scottish Government programme, delivered in partnership with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO). It provides digital devices, connectivity and digital skills support to people on low incomes who are digitally excluded. Over 3 distinct phases, Connecting Scotland has, so far, helped more than 60,000 households to increase their digital engagement and harness the advantages of being online.
This evaluative report focuses on the experiences of people supported in phase 2 of the programme and follows on from the Phase 1 evaluation. The primary target group for support in phase 2 was low income households with dependent children, though this phase also included provision for young care leavers, as well as a 'winter support package' aimed at older and/or disabled people. Phase 2 of Connecting Scotland delivered devices between autumn 2020 and spring 2021, when national lockdown restrictions were still in place.
Devices were awarded to individuals through an application process managed by the SCVO. Third sector organisations, or local authorities, applied for devices on behalf of people on low incomes, who are digitally excluded.
People receiving devices through Connecting Scotland own those devices and can use them as they wish, though the anticipated benefits for people of consistent online access include: enhanced mental wellbeing, improved financial management, greater opportunities for learning and training, access to public services, and access to more employment opportunities.
People receiving devices are also offered support from a 'digital champion'; a nominated person from the applying organisation who can provide digital skills support and help with using devices. Users can also call the Connecting Scotland helpline if they need help with a specific issue.
To understand the impact of Connecting Scotland, Scottish Government researchers have engaged with people supported by the programme at various intervals from the time they received a device. People are invited to complete surveys at the beginning of, and around 9 months into, the period of support. A sample of users is also invited to take part in qualitative interviews in which they are asked about their experience of the programme after they have had their device for a few months.
Main research findings
The findings from research with people supported in phase 2 indicate that Connecting Scotland has improved online access for households, many of whose internet use had been restricted by insufficient and inadequate devices and/or limited or inconsistent access to data. Reported impacts include:
- children being able to take part in remote learning and complete schoolwork online, especially during periods of 'lockdown'
- the ability to search and apply for job opportunities more easily
- saving money – both from not having to pay for equipment or data, and from using the internet to shop around for the best prices and deals
- enhanced ability to pursue interests and leisure activities; particularly important for children who could maintain social contact with peers
Many people supported by Connecting Scotland had previously relied on mobile phones as their main means of accessing the internet. The new devices enabled them to do things online that they either could not do, or struggled to do, before. This was due mainly in part to:
- a bigger display screen made several activities easier, including video calling and school or college work
- being able to edit and save documents vastly improved people's ability to participate in education, and to apply for jobs as they were able to easily update CVs
- portable MiFi meant that people could use their internet connection outside of the home at no extra cost
- people commented that their Connecting Scotland devices were able to support a greater range of applications, expanding the ways in which people used their connectivity
Recommendations for future phases
The majority of users in phase 2 reported being confident internet users which largely explains why many said that they had not needed support from a digital champion. It is, nevertheless, worth considering what kinds of support might be of service to (generally younger) users who feel capable using the internet though for whom, presumably, there remain ways in which their digital engagement could be enhanced.
There was also a significant minority of users who did not appear to know about the digital skills support available through digital champions. In future, the programme should ensure that support is well signposted and easily accessible to those who need it.
A minority of research participants felt the device they had been given did not have the functionality that they desired. It is not clear whether people simply needed more help and information to use their device, or whether a changed or expanded hardware offer should form part of Connecting Scotland's future provision. Further research and user testing will help to clarify the best option(s) for device provision.
In terms of research activities, it has proved difficult to achieve robust sample sizes in the surveys. Efforts to boost sample sizes for research involving phase 3 users have been encouraging, though exploring ways to better engage people in research activities remains a priority for future evaluative activities.
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