Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


Questionably open and not always by choice

In preparing my ALT format piece for OER19, I thought about these questions in the context of my work as a volunteer IT Buddy at my local library in the town of Macclesfield in the North West of England.

  • Why open?
  • Open for whom?
  • Whose interests are served?
  • In what ways has the open agenda been appropriated, and what are the implications of this?

In my 7 minute slot, I wasn’t able to answer these questions. Rather I encouraged participants to think about the questions as they listened to three brief stories I told them: the first two were composite stories woven from fragments of experiences I witnessed and heard IT Buddy clients tell me over the last two years; and the third was an individual’s story told wuth permission.

Jim’s Story (49s)

Jim is persistent and organised and has come to know what he wants. Using the Internet without logging in or using an email address, Jim is a bit like WWW users back in the day. He has made an informed choice to stay away from email, but will that always be open to him?

Enid’s Story (1m 8s)

Because of her increasing visual impairment, Enid finds it difficult to manage her tablet on different levels. She leaves apps and browser windows open because she doesn’t know they are open. Google Voice recognition has a lot of potential for her to control her tablet but using it would mean her being “always on” Google, with associated data harvesting issues.

Another issue is that her visual impairment makes it difficult for Enid to cut her fingernails, resulting in some strange outcomes from clicks and double clicks, if she uses the pads of her fingers. She had to use the side of her little finger to avoid this problem.

Mr P’s Story (1m 28s)

Mr P has no wish to learn to use a computer, smartphone or tablet. He wants the proxy use that Selwyn(2016) describes in his report but this doesn’t fit with the two factor authentication increasingly being pushed by government and other systems, to “solve” security risks. The workarounds come with their own issues and problems, some of which are also security-related.

Family help and limited access to IT Buddies are no substitute for real choice not to use online; and person-centred support in person and by telephone.


In the world of apps available on phones and tablets, there are real efforts to give a good user experience but this can be at the expense of said users’ understanding and real control over what they are doing. The attitude of service providers can be “Don’t worry about that”  in response to users’ confusion and the attitude of users as “What can we do? “ or a shrugging of the shoulders.  Users’ confusion and feelings of lack of agency accompany the service providers desire to harvest data and track users across platforms eg Facebook, Google. This is no coincidence.

Platforms want us to be always online.

“The only way to sign out of the Gmail app is to remove your entire account from your phone or tablet.”Google help

Apparently, it’s possible to log out of the Facebook app but I couldn’t work out how to do it a couple of years ago when I deleted the app on my phone and now I rarely visit Facebook on my laptop.

Systems Developers

Some systems developers seem to be making assumptions that everyone is online, has a smartphone and an email address that remains constant.

There may be a creeping tendency to mandate online or just obscure the alternatives for reasons of cost.

Well that was as much as I could cover in my 7 minute Alt Format session. I was pleasantly surprised by the reactions I got within the session and afterwards on Twitter.

Later reflections

The three stories I shared in the session did not represent all of the people I meet as an IT Buddy. Many have broadband at home and have top-end devices. I focused in the session on those who chose to use computers at the Library, or were forced to do so for various reasons.  The question of user choice in using online services is an interesting one, I think. Jim’s story shows us a way to use the Internet with little or no tracking, as he has specifically chosen not to have an email address, though I don’t think tracking was a major element in his decision. Enid can glimpse how the Internet might improve some things for her as her family thinks but can’t see how to make it work in her day to day life. Mr P just wants to do his VAT returns. These are #smallstories but significant.

In viewing recordings and reflections from Reclaim team, I came across the term Digital Fatigue. I don’t think my stories were so much about Digital Fatigue but rather in Jim’s case Digital Freedom,  and in Mr. P’s Digital Coercion.

Older people can operate in spaces that span Digital Freedom, Fatigue and Coercion. I want to challenge mandated online, developers’ assumptions; and think about alternatives, including telephone, face to face and proxy Internet use.

Just before #OER19, I read an odd article

“Older people play an outsized role in civic life. They also are more likely to be online targets for misinformation and hyperpartisan rhetoric.”

from Old, Online, And Fed On Lies: How An Aging Population Will Reshape The Internet

The concept of older people shaping the Internet seemed somehat at odds with the three stories I have told, though I can see that for e-commerce, older people with time and money must be an attractive demographic. I am very concerned about social media interference in democracy, even more since viewing Carol Cadwalladr’s TED talk  but I think there are more effective responses for older people and us all than mass digital/media literacy education programmes, however important they may be in the education of young people and adults. Is the article promoting an evil twin of the Digital Natives trope?

I am more concerned by the mandating, or the effective mandating by obscuring alternatives, of everyday services to be online, for reasons of cost-saving for the service-provider.

And then after OER19, I came across this tweet

My hopeful thought from #OER19 is that things can be different, and they must.


Selwyn, N. et al. (2016) Going online on behalf of others others. Available at:

#oer19#smallstoriesethicsparticipationpowersocial mediatechnology

francesbell • April 23, 2019

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  1. OER19: tears, laughter and hope – My Educational Technology Labyrinth
  2. Maha Bali April 23, 2019 - 12:42 pm Reply

    Thanks for sharing this, Frances. I am similarly alarmed and concerned that my government is planning to move many government services and paperwork to fully online. The same country where only about half the population is literate and about 35% are connected to the internet (100+% have mobiles, tho, as is typical for our economies). Worse, we don’t have public libraries from which people can go online. I don’t even wanna get started on this. It’s one thing for companies to do such things for profit, but another for a country’s government, the same one that hasn’t provided equitable/robust infrastructure for internet, one that has not solved its literacy problem despite mandatory free education K-6/9 to then force people to do things online.

    • francesbell April 23, 2019 - 1:48 pm Reply

      I am bit shaken from having a long session with Mr P in the library – I’ll report back on that later 🙁 I showed him his story and he approved thoroughly. Mr P is literate – his VAT accounts are beautifully written out by hand and he seems to have a good handle on his finances. His position is that he doesn’t want to have to use computers and really why should he have to?
      What you are describing in Egypt has a lesser parallel in UK. There are still issues with literacy – and whilst the % of mobiles/smartphones/ Internet users is very different in UK the most affected groups are those who are economically/socially disadvantaged and least likely to have a voice.

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