06 SES 03, Lifelong Learning and Digital Inclusion/Exclusion
Member states of the European Union are experiencing demographic changes due to an increased life expectancy, relatively low birth rate and efficient healthcare systems. Their populations, and their workforces, are aging. This demographic shift is resulting in a major reassessment of the policies and practices toward the increasing number of workers who are 55 years or older. Concurrently, the technological revolution is continuing unabated, driving the ‘knowledge-based economy’, and causing tremendous changes in the workplace (Remtulla, 2007). At the same time, the advocates for e-learning are heralding it as the panacea for contemporary education and training ills and shortcomings. They argue that e-learning programmes, particularly of the ‘self-paced’ and non-facilitated type, will usher in an era of renewed workplace participation and worker empowerment because they allow for any-time education and anywhere-access to knowledge. Consequently, e-learning is increasingly being regarded as the means towards workplace democratisation. However, the level of computer access and Internet use among workers remains unbalanced across all European Union (EU) Member States. Malta, the smallest state of the EU, is no exception. Indeed, local studies indicate that there is a profound digital divide within the older section of the Maltese workforce.
Statistics from the Maltese islands indicate that - for various reasons, including no exposure to computers over their lifetime and in their occupations, low educational attainment and income levels, physical disability and access to affordable ICT training – only a small percentage of older workers have adequate digital skills (National Statistics Office, 2017). A growing concern is that Maltese older workers who are digitally incompetent face social disadvantages and exclusion. Moreover, older workers who do not participate in continuous job-related development, because of their lack of ITC skills and knowledge, may not be encouraged to remain in the labour force, and will thereby not contribute to neither the local economy and nor its welfare system beyond their retirement. This will exacerbate the projected more severe skill shortage in the local workforce.
This study aims (i) to identify the reasons for the relative lack of digital competence and Internet use amongst older workers, particularly the less skilled and educated, and (ii) to establish how, if possible, e-learning can address the needs of older workers who have remained outside the digital revolution. This case study is part of a larger three-year project that is investigating the opportunities and barriers of e-learning for older workers in the Maltese Islands. The project is co-financed by the Ministry of Education and Employment (Malta) and the European Structural Cohesion funds (under Priority axis 3).
The research process occurred between February and June 2017. A sample of 51 employees was selected from a larger pool of prospective subjects who answered a call for participation through an e-mail sent by the Research Unit of Jobsplus (Malta) on behalf of this researcher to all Maltese enterprises employing persons who were 55 years or over, and unemployed, also identified by Jobsplus. This researcher used ‘intensive qualitative interviewing’ which created ‘conversations with a purpose’ that were ‘open-ended yet directed, shaped yet emergent, and paced yet unrestricted’. The interviews were conducted in the Maltese language and a topic guide was used. In general, the interviews lasted about an hour. The interviews were recorded, on agreement with the respondents, and on the understanding that the information provided would be treated with strict confidentiality. They were then transcribed and later translated into English. Later they were analysed inductively using the constant comparative Grounded Theory approach (Charmaz, 2006) through which a system of key codes, categories and memos emerged from the data.
The findings indicate that a significant percentage of older workers never made use of ICT for social and/or educational activities. These workers were significantly delineated by gender and socio-economic status patterns – namely, women (namely carers and house/hotel cleaners), individuals who worked in blue-collar and working-class occupations, particularly those employed in microenterprises, and the long-term unemployed. The data also demonstrated that access was not the main issue at hand, and that the failure of older workers to become digitally competent was the result of a continuum of overlapping barriers. These included the belief that ‘old dogs cannot learn new tricks’, learning to use new technology at their age would not improve their life prospects, a perceived non-usefulness and difficulty to use computers, Internet-enabled smartphones and tablets, anxiety about computer usage, concern about security and privacy issues and reticence to learn something new. The data, unsurprisingly, also indicated a strong negative perception of e-learning in older workers, which they associated with ICT skills and knowledge. However, the data also revealed further reasons for this negative perception of e-learning. These included the workers’ lack of knowledge of what e-learning is, what e-learning programmes are available, their belief that ‘learning through the Internet is probably costly’ and ‘(we) cannot follow any online course on (our) own … (and) without help’. The paper concludes with a number of recommendations intended to help older workers become better digital citizens through e-learning, including providing blended learning courses where the ‘cognitive, teacher and social presences’, as proposed in the Community of Inquiry Model (Anderson, 2008) are very strong.
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