Digital Access and Equity in a Time of Social Distancing
(COVID-19 Blog Series)

By Associate Professor Shanton Chang
Co-leader, Digital Access and Equity Research Program, Melbourne Social Equity Institute
Associate Dean International, Melbourne School of Engineering

Wednesday 29 April 2020

If you are like me, you might be feeling slightly annoyed at yet another article on managing your well-being because we are in a pandemic! To be fair, people are only trying to help, and you might even be producing articles yourself to be useful (guilty as charged!). I also know that I am starting to ignore the long articles and emails that are coming my way – whether official or not. If I don’t see another two-page long official email, it would be a small victory.

Most organisations and individuals are rather overwhelmed at the moment because there is clearly an overload of information from all directions. This is because of the increased volume of online activities and also increased production of online information from both organisations and individuals. Even those who have previously not produced information online are now doing so.

Digital Access

I am lucky to have relatively good access to technology (provided by the University) and also a top-end broadband data plan. This means that the only time I complain about my internet is when I am streaming Netflix in the background while surfing the internet on my laptop and playing a game on the mobile all at the same time.

I am fully aware, however, that some of my students during this period, have had to be very careful about what they are downloading and accessing because they do not have the best data plans. Worse, some of them do not have access to good internet speeds which makes even following a simple webinar difficult. So clearly, it’s one thing to provide content remotely but it’s important to consider how many videos of lectures can they download? It’s not as if they should stop engaging in content for entertainment in favour of studies, because mental well-being is more important now than ever.

In the last three weeks alone, I have frequently had to ask the question of whether the online events organised by various groups to support students will be accessible to those students who have low bandwidth, or may be overseas (where there is a firewall and a time difference).

Information Overloading is a Digital Equity Issue

Even as a scholar of information behaviours, I am finding the information overload overwhelming.  Many official information providers seem to be putting every possible date, options, statistic, alternatives, ways forward, and new processes online,  meaning that the onus is on me as the reader to sift through what is relevant, whether I like it or not.

A word to organisations - the paradox here is that the more information you put online, the less informed people will be, especially if they are under pressure, have less access, struggle with the language, have limited time, or are just simply tired. Think of all those who are schooling kids at home! They are too tired to read through all your convoluted information.

Therefore, it is really important for organisations to re-think the volume and quality of information they are producing and the frequency of doing so. The following is a small wish list:

  • Organisations should only communicate what is relevant or essential and don’t blast generic emails at me
  • Information should be packaged and organised with clear headings/options so I can choose which parts I want to read
  • There should be no misinformation
  • Stop reminding me that we have a pandemic right now at the start of every paragraph
  • Social media messages should be short
  • Consider the timing of your messages

After all, we want information to be both accessible and equitable, not dense and off-putting. If so, it’s important that wish-list guides how you communicate on behalf of your projects and organisation.

Associate Professor Shanton Chang is a research and teaching academic at the School of Computing and Information Systems. His research interests include information behaviours from a socio-technical perspective (with a particular interest in health, business and educational contexts), information needs and information behaviour, information security and organisational cultures and qualitative research methodologies . He is also currently the Associate Dean (International) at the Melbourne School of Engineering.