The vast wealth of research on public access ICTs that sets out to measure impacts, in reality often ends up with some measures of usage (which could be considered impacts depending on the research goal) and analysis of why expected impacts were not achieved. Thus we continue to know more about the factors that seem to inhibit impact attainment, but not necessarily whether impacts would happen if all those factors were addressed (assuming that were even possible). The ideal scenario would distinguish between those impacts for which there appears to be some measure of reliable evidence (although we do not expressly judge the quality of individual studies) from those for which the conversation is still in the realm of potential.
Another consideration is the extent to which empirical evidence has been generated to support the expectations that are associated with eInclusion actors. It is an unfortunate fact that a large proportion of available commentary on telecenters and other such eInclusion actors is based more on perceived potential than on demonstrated fact. While the general value of having meaningful access to ICTs is generally undisputed, the idea that particular methods of providing such access are superior to others is still up for debate, and the ability to make judgments is limited by the dearth of solid evidence based on a preponderance of research and observation. This is not to say there is no data to support claims on the impacts of eInclusion actors; rather that the data tends to be based on disparate, isolated, often small-scale, and highly contextualized studies, making it difficult to identify valid or reliable trends. In some cases the evidence is strong and backed by multiple similar findings; in others the evidence may be inconclusive, with different studies reporting contradictory findings. In other cases, there may simply be limited or no evidence.
Categories of theories and analytical frameworks that address how eInclusion actors work and the impact they have
Considering the interdisciplinary nature of scholarship on eInclusion, there is a significant amount of overlap and merging of approaches and foci. Furthermore, individual reports and research projects tend to combine several perspectives. The landscape of theories and analytical frameworks can be broadly compartmentalized into two major areas:
1. Theories, analytical frameworks, and conceptual explanations that explain how eInclusion actors work. This area brings together research and assessments that explore or prescribe how operations are organized to achieve eInclusion goals. Most of this work is grounded in organizational change, business management, public policy, sociology and information science.
2. Theories, analytical frameworks, and conceptual explanations that explain how eInclusion actors impact people’s lives. This research encompasses a rich variety of theoretical and analytical lenses. It also represents many disciplines, including development communication, social psychology, social development, business, anthropology, and public policy. The landscape exercise derived theories, frameworks, and conceptual models that can be broadly compartmentalized into three groups:
a. ICT adoption, appropriation, and patterns of use among the users of eInclusion actors (telecenters, libraries, cybercafés, etc.)
These approaches focus primarily on identifying the factors that influence the adoption, use, and appropriation of ICT by users of eInclusion actors. This area of research aims to understand the conditions that motivate ICT adoption, the patterns of use derived from this adoption, and related behavioral changes. Most of the frameworks within this category build user profiles that are compared against demographic variables (gender, age, educational level, etc.). The unit of analysis is usually the individual user and impact is assessed based on changes in modes of ICT acceptance and use as well as the types of ICT-related activities that users engage in. In many instances, the changes in ICT adoption is analyzed in the context of the characteristics, services offered, and enabling environment that eInclusion actors offer.
b. Ways in which eInclusion actors contribute towards building human and social capacity among their target groups, whether through promoting information literacy, building digital competences, and/or strengthening the diversity and composition of their social networks.
The theories, analytical frameworks, and conceptual explanations identified in this category expand impact beyond ICT adoption and patterns of use to building human and social capacity. This area covers digital competencies, information flows, appropriation, and information behavior, some elements of social and cultural capital, empowerment, and intergenerational interactions. The unit of analysis centers on individual users but also links changes in human and social capital to broad social and economic goals. Impact is analyzed from a normative perspective contextualized by external factors that play a role in how target groups are impacted by ICT access
c. Contribution of eInclusion actors (telecenters, libraries, cybercafés, etc.) towards specific social, economic, and cultural goals.
The theories and frameworks in this category assess the role of eInclusion actors in advancing social goals at a broad community and macro level. Even though these approaches include elements from the two previous sections, they are distinct in that they emphasize the links between ICT adoption, use, and the role of ICTs in building human and social capital towards large level social and economic objectives. The unit of analysis for this group is the community, which is represented in different ways depending on the context and the research questions.
These three areas are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it is common to find research that includes the ICT profile of the users as a variable to understand how and under which conditions eInclusion actors advance social and economic goals. Another important consideration is that the theories, frameworks, and conceptual models operationalized usually focus on the individual as the unit of analysis. This is particularly true for the first group. The research in group 2 and, to some extent group 3, expands the unit of analysis to assess impact in groups, communities, and at the national level.
Digital media technologies permeate all aspects of life, so eInclusion programs can rarely be implemented without accounting for factors internal and external to the specific eInclusion intermediary and the target population. The conceptual areas outlined above illustrate the diversity and range of theories and explanations applied to assessment of eInclusion initiatives. In brief, the landscape identifies nine broad areas explaining how telecenters and other eInclusion actors work, and three broad areas explaining how they impact their constituencies. During this phase of the research process it became clear that each area has value, depending on the objective of the evaluation exercise. The more holism is required, the greater the number of approaches integrated in a later stage.