What is a Digital Village?

A Digital Village is a space where a community expresses their identity though ICT and Digital Media. This may be from an artistic, heritage, or economic perspective or a mixture of all three.This can be done through poetry, digital stories, community newspapers online, image collections (old and new), audio (Internet radio, oral history), animations, video, and text. To engage in the activities the participants need to learn new skills and so the Digital Village also becomes a learning community.

At it’s simplest a Digital Village is a community website. The term “village” need not apply to an actual village (although in many cases it does) but to a cluster of villages, a geographical area or a group of participants in a town. On Teesside there is even an example of a Digital Cemetery!

A Digital Village becomes a vehicle for participant led learning where the interests of the learning community set the agenda for what they learn. This is done using Community Media and innovative use of ICT, particularly open source software and web2 applications. The activity is informal and workshop based. Some technical support is required but the process becomes “flexible replication”. Assistance from ICT animateurs is needed for these workshops but we have also observed peer learning taking place in these informal workshops.

It is also possible to introduce an element of e-learning into the Digital Village concept. There is currently a great deal of interest in Virtual Learning Environments (VLE’s) and e-portfolios. It is also very simple to consider the Digital Village as both VLE and e-portfolio. Whatever the participants want to learn e.g. digital images, creative writing, family or local history etc… can be supported on the Digital Village website VLE style and it is also presented on the DV website e-portfolio style.

The Background to Digital Villages

In 1995 the University of Teesside, based in the North East of England facilitated a project in Trimdon, County Durham which was at the time the constituency of the leader of the Labour party, Tony Blair who later went on to become Prime Minister. The project included research into community ICT needs and culminated in a “build a website in a weekend” project. The project was known as Trimdon Digital Village.

In 2000, a new ERDF Resider funded project began. The project initially included 7 former steel making communities and was known as Tees Valley Communities Online (TVCO). Other Tees Valley communities also became involved during the lifetime of the project. In 2001 an interesting event took place. The purpose of the event was to promote networking between distant communities and was the first ever online pub quiz. The competing teams were Timms Coffee House in Skinningrove and The Black Bull in Trimdon. Skinningrove won this competition but what created a great deal of interest in this event was the fact Prime Minister, Tony Blair had turned out to play for his local team and Skinningrove had beaten them! This was a shot in the arm for Skinningrove who had recently suffered two successive and devastating floods. As the victors of the “Community Challenge”, the Skinningrove group adopted the name “Skinningrove Digital Village” and began to use ICT, Digital Media and their website to campaign for river status for the beck (stream) that flowed through their village as this would afford them better protection against future flooding. The campaign was successful and they now have flood defences in place that have withstood the test of time. There are many community stories in Skinningrove so, to emphasise the notion of a “Digital Village” an aerial view of the village was presented on the website with clickable hotspots that led to poetry, stories and various multi media. They also made use of blogs to tell regular stories of community life in Skinningrove.

As a result of the interest in the online pub quiz, the University of Teesside developed software to facilitate Community Challenges which culminated in a 52 team competition across the UK and a Euro Challenge with an online centre in Amiens, France.

Later the University of Teesside was approached by the British Educational Communication Technology Agency (BECTA) to work on a project with Hunwick Primary School in County Durham. The school wanted to engage their community and saw the Digital Village concept as a good way to do this. They wished to emulate the Skinningrove “aerial view with hotspots” idea and the notion of a “web weekend” as pioneered in Trimdon was also adopted. Hunwick brought some new ideas on board too. Family history and digital image workshops were laid on. The local community were encouraged to bring in photographs for scanning and to tell their stories and this culminated in the web weekend which was facilitated by staff and students from the University of Teesside as well as the children from the school. One of the activities of the weekend was the famous “headcam”. Children went out into the village, one of them with a webcam on his head and a laptop on his back. The resulting footage as they explored the Village and spoke to people they met along the way was both fascinating and in places something like watching paint dry!

The Hunwick Digital Village project was facilitated by a local coordinator who would be the first to admit to having low ICT skills but who had an in depth knowledge of the Village and the community living there. The local coordinator was supported by the University of Teesside’s Community Media Coordinator visiting, running workshops and distance support. During the project the local coordinators ICT skills increased a great deal. The timeline of images collected and still to be seen on the site is impressive going back as far as 1810.

Interestingly, some of the ideas developed in Hunwick found their way back to Tees Valley including Skinningrove who inspired Hunwick in the first place. The partnership between schools and communities has also been emulated and more recently libraries have become a useful partner to develop Digital Village activity.

In 2005 the University of Teesside was awarded Single Programme funding by Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council to deliver a range ofactivities in rural East Cleveland. Three University of Teesside projectswere developed to provide training and business support opportunities in the more remote areas of East Cleveland. Delivery commenced in December 2005 and ended in March 2007.

The projects were as follows:

Virtual Rural Enterprise Network (VREN). The VREN project, based in The Business School at the University of Teesside, aimed to develop a new web-based business network and support facility called the ‘Virtual Rural Enterprise Network’ to encourage and support entrepreneurship in rural East Cleveland. The network aimed to enable businesses to overcome some of the key obstacles of rurality including access to markets, information flows, and the creation of a community of entrepreneurs. In doing so, new technologies were deployed.

Digital Discovery Route (DDR) The Digital Discovery Route project, based in DigitalCity at the University of Teesside, aimed to use the latest technology to support economic and social development in the East Cleveland rural area. Activities were designed to promote the use of ICTs in rural communities by providing training and support, improving levels of confidence and skills and complementing existing government initiatives such as UK Online.

East Cleveland Community ICT (ECCICT) The East Cleveland Community ICTs project, based in DigitalCity at the University of Teesside, aimed to deliver a support package for rural community groups and their clients including ‘needs’ led courses focusing on the context of individual’s daily lives. The participantsdeveloped a range of skills including: accessing the internet; ‘smart searching’; web site development; and electronic communication in a friendly, empowering format.

The University of Teesside’s Community Media Coordinator was seconded to Digital City to deliver DDR and ECCICT. In some instances previously existing contacts were involved (Digital Villages) but also many new communities came on board taking Tees Valley Community Media activity deeper into Rural East Cleveland. Web content from these two projects was published at East Cleveland Online (ECOL) www.ecol,org.uk and a Digital Village Network was created. The DDR project was a roving one, making many new connections in the process. ECCICT was based at Terminus, a UK online Centre in Saltburn.  Later Terminus changed owners and became known as Destinations. A Community Media club was established in Destinations and ran successfully throughout the project. Whilst early Tees Valley ICT activity had focused on Text, Images and Webpages new, more advanced activity was taking place including Podcasting, Animations, Music and Audio. The Saltburn Folk Festival was webcast from Destinations by a team of Community Media volunteers during the lifetime of these projects.