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Darren Jones MP welcomed attendees and thanked the event’s speakers for joining the call, before introducing CEO at FutureDotNow, Liz Williams MBE.

Liz discussed the increased importance of connectivity since the beginning of lockdown measures in the UK, noting that their are 1.9 million people in the UK without mobile or internet access. Liz went on to discuss how the lockdown measures had cut peoples supply to vital ‘free data top-ups’ in public spaces such as libraries, community centres and cafes, adding that the knock on effect of this limited access had been drastic for the mental health of some of our most vulnerable communities. Liz went on to praise the steps Government have taken in establishing a working group to tackle the issues of digital exclusion, data poverty and loneliness, stating that any solution to these issues must focus on several key components, skills, personal access, and resilience.

CEO at Jisc, Dr Paul Feldman began his contribution by highlighting just how rapid the switch to online teaching and learning had been in March, noting that in the space of a week, every student was expected to know how to learn online and every lecturer, how to teach online. Dr Feldman went on to express the view that this new way of working is here to stay, adding that the sector must now ask itself what good online teaching and learning looks like. Dr Feldman discussed the issues facing HE and FE students, such as the 20% of students in the UK who do not have access to the appropriate hardware. He went on to discuss the issue of skills, noting that even when students from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to the kit, they don’t have the skills, the confidence or the right home working environment to be efficient learners. Dr Feldman detailed Jisc’s view of a ‘hybrid future’, where students and teachers have access to the tools they need for remote working but with the scope for vital in-person top-ups.

Professor Will Stewart FREng began by highlighting the huge effort from all across the sector in keeping the UK connected throughout the pandemic, adding that we must ensure these networks remain effective, secure and accessible for all. Professor Stewart detailed the role that misinformation surrounding 5G rollout threats to play in the future of the UK’s connectivity, adding that the IET’s recent report shows that there are no added health concerns associated with the proposed network roll-outs in the UK. He added that the sector must work with local authorities to dispel the misinformation and to encourage widespread investment in networks that increase productivity, connect previously excluded communities and drive an economic recovery. Professor Stewart closed with a recommendation that Parliament pushed for momentum in global connections in the face of whatever political pressures we face, adding that we mustn’t see a breakdown in global communication.

Civil Society and Lords DCMS Minister, The Baroness Barran MBE discussed the role that civil society has to play in building confidence in excluded communities and making sure everyone has the skills they need to stay connected, noting that Government very much wants to build on the sense of community that the nation has developed in response to COVID-19. The Minister went on to discuss Governments role in tackling misinformation, especially in the context of BAME communities, noting that Government will be holding a series of stakeholder events to hear from volunteering networks, charities and groups, in a hyper local model, to better understand what the barriers are to tackle device issues and skills. The Baroness went on to detail the Tackling Loneliness Network and its focus on Digital Loneliness in young people, older communities and geographically excluded groups.


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