PhD presentation: ‘New Clicks’: developing user-led digital literacies in older adults within Scottish public libraries  

This was the first of the social informatics research group’s PhD presentations in 2024. Here, Drew Feeney reports on his project ‘New Clicks’: developing user-led digital literacies in older adults within Scottish public libraries.

My project covers new ways to develop media and information literacy skills in older adults, using public libraries as a conceptual and practical basis. It will be participant-led, using a participatory action research (PAR) methodology to empower people to assess their own needs and evaluate outcomes. It springs out of my current employment as a public librarian, and should lead to demonstrable impact.


The literature says:

  • Older adults are disproportionately and tangibly affected by gaps in digital literacy development. This may be because our society currently supports inequalities. In Scotland, we develop literacies based on economics and school, yet a quarter of UK adults still lack necessary basic digital skills, and there are no relevant policies to address this deficit in the older adult population.
  • Public libraries are uniquely placed to respond to these challenges, not least because they are trusted to address complex needs.
  • Participatory methodologies, including peer-to-peer support, can meet older learners on their own terms.
  • PAR approaches and peer-supported longitudinal programmes are under-explored and yet potentially decisive.

Research focus and research questions

The project will focus on these factors:

  • A lack of specific, intersectional provision needs to be addressed to combat growing inequalities.
  • Sustainable change needs direct engagement, to sustainably address older adults’ literacy needs.
  • Public libraries can be central to development of transferrable skills.

This leads to these research questions:

  1. How do older adults determine their own digital literacy needs, and what factors influence these? 
  2. How would older adults themselves address these needs? 
  3. What is the impact of participatory and peer-supported methodologies when addressing these needs?

Why participation?

Firstly, UK research organisations have a commitment to public engagement. Next, the UK has more than 17 million people aged over 60. Targeted models of engagement have been shown to be effective with this cohort because these methods are more relevant to older adults. 

Hence participatory methodologies are able to reach those who would not be engaged by formal education, which is otherwise too formal, unknown or geographically distant. Recent studies (Detlor et al, 2022Richardson, 2018) have shown that such approaches have unique advantages for older people in particular, and offer positive outcomes by engaging with peoples’ experiences. In my project such approaches will actively tackle inequalities.

In brief:

  • Participation involves researchers and users working together to understand issues, and change matters for the better.
  • Action Research actively engages users in new ways to develop sustainable, applicable outcomes.

Research design

My research design is based on a participatory approach as outlined here by Urbaniak and Wanka:

A strength of this framework is that participants can take part as much or as little as they wish. PAR can be visualised as this Venn diagram which covers participants and researchers working together to change matters.

PAR gives weight to life-course experience, is inclusive, and levels out differences between participants. It blurs the lines between practitioners and participants. Criticisms include the method being messy and unpredictable, but I see this as a strength because it can bring new experiences to the fore.

PAR is inherently political, in that it seeks to change the situation that it is studying, encouraging a multiplicity of viewpoints. It stems from Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation in which citizens can attain full control of a process, and from White’s typology/cycle of participation.

In practice, so far an Initial cohort of adults aged over 65 is already established, based at the library where I work. They are all very happy to take part. I am designing an iterative programme of user-led workshops over12 to 18 months with a small, indicative group of participants, to baseline practices. This should support later work with the full cohort. Because my PhD is part-time, I am able to undertake a longitudinal, peer-supported assessment of outcomes over the next 3½ years. This may lead to a formative toolkit for literacy. However, the ultimate outcomes of the project will be decided by its participants.

Early conclusions

  • The literature says that older adults need tailored approaches to challenging digital deficits, because they are disproportionately affected by such deficits, and there are no policies to tackle these.
  • Participative methodologies best suit the aims of the project because they enable development of scalable solutions specific to need. There are emancipatory.
  • Interventions will be user-led, and based on lived experience and situated learning. Hence it is not currently possible to predict any specific outcomes.
  • Public libraries are a lens for understanding such issues, as well as offering trusted and holistic services to aid this process, because they are community-centric.
  • Longitudinal and peer-supported approaches offer potential breakthroughs in knowledge and critical sustainability. Longitudinal approaches give time for outcomes to mature and be validated ‘in the field’, leading to effective, stress-tested interventions.


  • What do you mean by ‘older adults’? They are not homogenous, in various ways, so you may need to specify your cohort more precisely.
    • Some literature defines ‘older’ as ‘over 50’, but such people may well be working, not retired. ‘Older old adults – those aged 80 or over – can be hard to reach. My method is to allow the group itself to define what is meant by ‘old’. 
  • Are there specific things that participants want to develop literacies about, and might this affect your research?
    • it will be unknown until participants identify specific topics, and drill down week by week. However, I think that emergent needs may revolve around practical issues.
  • An article in The Economist has stated that academia isn’t contributing to society, but your research clearly will. Are you using PAR as a research philosophy or as a methodology?
    • PAR is the philosophy – it is the background to all of my research. It is interventionist, enabling change in factors such as socioeconomic status, mobility, motivation and learning environments that may hold people back.
  • How do you measure inequality? There may be different degrees and sequences of inequalities.
    • It’s around practicalities and the impact of such needs: people are shut out of basic things. There are relevant frameworks available to evaluate findings.
  • You may already have ideas about older adults’ needs from being a librarian. Are there relevant (literature) gaps, and will you be able to elicit unrecorded needs?
    • Needs are constantly changing, but are likely to revolve around basic literacy, technologies including AI, literacies to access to health resources and other practical issues.
  • How much does this research rely on you being a supportive person situated in your community?
    • Having a relationship with and trust from participants is key to PAR. I hope that the participant group will be self-sustaining, going where academia and the library can’t reach. 

For people with Napier email addresses, Drew’s slides are available here and a recording of the whole session is available here.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.