Blog post written by Maya de Vries and Laila Abed Rabho
Please note that the participant names used in this blog post, as well as the neighbourhood name ‘Dar al-Hawa’, have been pseudonymised for reasons of anonymity and confidentiality. Dar al-Hawa is the pseudonym for a neighbourhood of 10,000 people in al-Quds (East Jerusalem).
One of the very first observations we had in the field site of Dar al-Hawa was that most people, young and old, own a smartphone. However, when delving deeper into the ways in which they used their phones, we discovered that their digital skills were very limited, and the use of different apps other than WhatsApp, is almost non-existent. Following the goals of the ASSA project, it was clear to us that part of our fieldwork should be to enable individuals to learn and improve their digital skills – an aim also aligned with what Kurt Lewin (1964) called research action in the fieldsite.
It took us more than a year to bring everything together, including finding the right organisation, the right space, getting the timing right, and finding future participants willing to join the course. When it finally happened, we were able to create a pilot course consisting of 12 meetings running for 3.5 hours each. Each of these sessions focused on one thing only, and that is teaching students how to use a smartphone. We partnered with a local organisation called “Good Thought”, a non-profit organisation established in 2003 which aims to reduce social gaps in Israel by providing teaching technical and digital skills to underprivileged groups. Good Thought already teaches similar courses, but they are usually aimed at helping students learn how to use a computer. When we approached them, it was after having spent a long time in the fieldsite, visiting people’s homes and seeing and hearing from different individuals who told us that they don’t have computers or laptops, just smartphones. Hence, we insisted that the course should be focused only on the smartphone. Because of this, the project was effectively a pilot one for the staff of Good Thought as well.
The first meeting took place on the 25th of November at the community centre in Dar al-Hawa, where 17 people arrived to receive information about the course. Eventually, only 15 people registered to attend the course – 4 women and one man. Since the state of Israel has previously declared that it aims to encourage its population and institutes to become more ‘digital’ and thus increase ‘digital equality’, we were lucky to receive significant subsidies for the course, meaning each participant only paid 20 NIS for the 12 meetings (NIS = Israeli New Shekel, this is the equivalent of about £4.41).
The leading instructor was N’, a Palestinian woman from al-Quds (East Jerusalem) who is a teacher by profession. Maya de Vries was her assistant throughout the course. In terms of participation and attendance rates, the course was a big success, as more than half of the participants attended 100% of the meetings, and the second half attended around 80-90% of the meetings. This indicates that participants were pleased with the content of the meetings and found it meaningful and helpful. Throughout the course, participants shared these feelings with us and told us how happy they are to be part of it. They also shared with us the fact that this course gives them a reason to get out of the house, and reduces some of the loneliness and boredom they experience on other days of the week when they don’t have other activities planned. One of the participants, Malak (aged 78) said the course “was something to wake up in the morning and feel happy for”. Here, the act of learning and developing digital skills as part of a group with a mutual goal provided sociality as well, which is something that can be lost in older age.
N’ and de Vries also came to learn difficult it is for individuals who do not speak Hebrew or English to control their smartphones, even if the language of the device itself was set to Arabic. During a lesson about how to use the MyVisit app (a government app assisting users in booking appointments with various formal institutes like electricity companies or the National Insurance Institute etc.), we did not manage to find an Arabic version of it. Hence, those who did not learn Hebrew or English at school were excluded from this particular lesson and completely depended on their group mates as well as N’ and De Vries, to help them.
We also came across several government-provided apps and websites which either did not have any Arabic content or had little Arabic content. Furthermore, only 3 out of 15 participants had an email account, and many government-provided apps require email registration to use. Although now each participant has an email account, which they created as part of the course’s assignments, they still found it more difficult to use these. Thus, if the government wants to increase digital participation among different groups, they should think about Whatsapp as an easier-to-use, more functional tool.
In addition to the matter of digital inequality, we also considered the sociopolitical gaps related to the geopolitical conditions of Dar al-Hawa and al-Quds in general. For example, we discovered how difficult it is for this age group to both click on the touch screen as well as wait for their ‘request’ to be uploaded. Many times, we had to explain to our students that they need to be more patient and wait for the app to upload their request, or for the website to appear. We repeated this instruction until our very last meeting – we do not think there is a clear solution to it other than continuing to practice using these tools.
WhatsApp is the most used app on participants’ phones – they all have it and they all know how to use its basic features such as sending messages and forwarding messages and photos. Nevertheless, we dedicated two lessons to WhatsApp use, including taking photos and selfies, which were not practicalities most of the participants were familiar with. We also taught them how to create a new group and how to record messages. Following WhatsApp, the second most popular apps were Facebook Messenger and Youtube. No one had any health apps on their phone, not even apps related to their health clinic, which has an Arabic language app.
One of the ASSA project’s findings across various field sites, including Japan and Ireland, was that ‘step counter’ apps are in widespread use among the populations studied. These step counters were not used by our participants, not even the versions that are free and built into their phone, although some had heard of step counting and the fact that there was an app on their phone that did just that. No one had actually opened the app, however.
Unfortunately, 12 meetings are simply not enough to teach participants all that smartphones can offer their users. This was something our participants felt during the course as well, and during the final session, they asked to have a second round of the course so they can learn more and develop their skills by learning how to use things like digital banking as well as other features we did not have the time to teach.
Going beyond the skills taught to the participants, as we quoted Malak before, we also heard, in the final session, how happy the students were when coming to the course and learning new things that can assist them in becoming less dependent on their children and grandchildren. Such feelings around the practicalities of independence should be more present among the older population in Dar al-Hawa. Thus, by creating more similar future courses, we are also hoping to make local older people’s lives easier and happier by increasing their knowledge in the digital arena.