Telephone conferencing and the limits of digital inclusion

In the push to get people online, we shouldn't neglect the old-fashioned telephone

Last March, lockdown emptied the libraries.  The church halls and community centres fell silent. The Knit and Natter groups, the coffee mornings, the lunch clubs, the U3A meetings, came to a halt, or sometimes, haltingly, reconvened online. In their cupboards, the tea urns gathered dust. But in people's homes across the land, Zoom screens flickered on and community life, or at least a disembodied shadow version of it, continued. 

One group, Cambridgeshire Older People's Enterprise (COPE), took a different approach. Deborah Katznelson, one of their trustees, had spent much of her life in the US, where telephone conferencing is mainstream - there are programmes in California and New York and Texas among others, with hundreds of participants. She also knew that many of COPE's members were not really interested in online meetings - they wanted to stay in touch with others and continue to learn and socialise, but didn't particularly want to move onto screens to access community life.


Deborah had started the TALKING TOGETHER programme of telephone discussion groups in February 2020, but with the advent of lockdown, the work of sustaining and growing the programme took on a new urgency. TALKING TOGETHER uses a telephone conferencing format, using a platform provided by the Phone Co-op. Participants sign up to a free six week course on a particular topic - topics have included poetry, Cambridgeshire history, paintings of the Fitzwilliam museum and the science of DNA - one group even read through The Cherry Orchard together! Each week, a facilitator is connected to the  participants, and over the next forty five minutes, each small group learns and discusses together. Course materials are posted to participants in advance of the calls. Around 300 people have participated to date, and demand is high: every series so far has had a waiting list.

Their lessons? Firstly, it was crucial to have a system which reached out to the participants. If the burden of phoning into the group at a set time was placed on the participant, far fewer people might join.Secondly, keep groups small. Meaningful interaction becomes impossible beyond about eight people when participants can't see each other.

Finally, a skilled facilitator or host who can support everyone's participation makes all the difference.

Some people don't use the internet, and that's OK

What I really liked about COPE's approach was that telephone conferencing didn't make participation reliant on getting online. The TALKING TOGETHER programme recognised that lots of people don't really use the internet, and that's OK - they didn't have to be converted to the joys of Zoom to participate. 

In Cambridgeshire, where I live and work, there was widespread recognition of how many people did not have internet access - sometimes because of poverty, often because of lack of interest. Nationally, three in five over 75s are without internet access. When lockdown started, voluntary and community groups came together for a heroic push on digital exclusion, working to get devices out to residents and to offer training in using the internet (props especially to Cambridgeshire Digital Partnership). I don't wish to denigrate this work. It enabled lots of people to access learning and connection. But we need to be honest about the limits of digital inclusion. 

Meeting people where they are

"Digital inclusion" seeks to move people onto the internet. Telephone conferencing meets them where they are. Joining online meetings needs a data plan, a device, decent broadband speed, and the money to pay for it all, which is not to be taken for granted in Fenland, an area of multiple deprivation. Telephone conferencing is low-tech but has a low barrier to entry.

ONS data suggests that the majority of people choose not to be online not because of lack of skills, but because of the cost of home internet access, or because of a lack of interest in going online. In addition, Cambridgeshire community conveners report that some older people are fearful about going online, and the risks of online scams or being hacked. Research from Lloyds suggests that 30% of people are totally uninterested in moving online, even when skills and money make it possible. 

Offering alternative ways for people to connect into community life

Digital assistance can be incredibly valuable where people are interested in going online. But when it's not digital skills that are the barrier, we need to be able to offer alternative ways for people to connect into community life from home.

As more and more people get vaccinated, we are beginning to see the church halls and the community centres come alive again. The tables are being unfolded from their cupboards. The tea urns are gurgling again. But it's important to remember that just as before lockdown, there are people who can't join. People who because of the bus cuts, or the heart condition, or the pain when they walk, or the responsibility to a loved one who needs 24hour care, are trapped at home, sometimes with only the telly for company. For these people, so often out-of-sight, out-of-mind, lockdown didn't change anything. I see telephone conferencing as a model for including these people in community life. 

Lianna Etkind is the Community Engagement Lead for Civic's Future Libraries Initiative

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  • Ella Turner