New Internet Users and their ‘Informal Teachers’

Published October 29, 2020, 2:54 PM

by Len Amadora

Written by Bernadette Nacario – Country Director, Google Philippines

Between now and 2025, more than 1.2 billion people around the world will come online for the first time and more than 66 million of them will come from the Philippines. Given the opportunity, these new internet users — many of whom come from rural communities outside big cities — will shape the future of the internet. But right now, they face steep obstacles to reaching their potential.

Making sure people have basic access to the internet is important — but, as a new research from Google’s Next Billion Users initiative shows, it’s not enough.

For those of us who use the internet daily, browsing the web or using an app comes naturally. Where there’s a change or upgrade, we quickly figure it out by ourselves because we’re used to fashioning technology to our own needs. 

For people trying to get to grips with the internet for the first time, it’s the opposite.

Our study — which focused on Brazil, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Mexico, but has global relevance — found that 75 percent of the time new internet users rely on other people, networks of ‘informal teachers’, for tasks as basic as turning on their phone. 

These teachers— typically family members or friends — have an important role, especially in regional communities where technology isn’t a given. They are trusted to onboard new internet users and asked to teach them over time, from setting up and maintaining accounts to ordering everyday items online. As one participant in our study said: “My daughter is a good teacher and explains everything in detail. She’ll teach me and then encourage me to practice, because if I don’t, I’ll forget.” We often see in these interactions that teachers want their ‘students’ to feel confident as they hand down knowledge from one to another.

But ultimately, this kind of relationship isn’t a reality for everyone — and over the long term, it’s not a sustainable way for new internet users to learn. The people they rely on for digital help aren’t always easily accessible (something the pandemic has made worse). Half don’t live with the person they’re teaching. And — of course— informal teachers aren’t always equipped in the way a professional educator would be. For example, one father we spoke with would only use his phone when his son was around, even though his son was only available every few months. This can lead to stagnation on both sides, where the new internet user isn’t learning effectively, and the teacher isn’t able to help their students learn fast enough.

Despite the best of intentions on all sides, the current learning system leaves new internet users without important skills and puts an unreasonable burden on their teachers. And given that new internet users are more likely to live in rural communities, to have a lower income, and to be women or older people, this risks widening social and economic divides that already exist. 

There are several important steps we can take to serve new internet users and their teachers better — starting with our own responsibility as a technology industry.

We can do much more to build apps in ways that help new users learn with greater independence. A key finding of our research was that while demonstration helps, practice is critical — and the people we spoke to felt more positively about learning when they were able to explore technology for themselves to build on their teacher’s foundational training.

Fast progress is possible. We recently tried a new approach with Google Go — an app from Google Search tailor-made for people coming online for the first time — where we added short tutorial videos to the homescreen, explaining not just how the app worked, but the larger concepts behind it. Unlike traditional onboarding screens or videos, which pop up once then disappear, these videos are there permanently — helping users gain skill and confidence over time.

If we make such simple steps part of the way we design technology, we can help empower new users from the first day they begin using their phone and add to the current learning system for them and their teachers. Initiatives like the “Digital Confidence Design Tools”  — developed by global design firm IDEO, Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — help technology-makers think about the needs of people coming online every day, no matter where they are or what their background.  

The reality is, it will take a different mindset, new approaches and big ambitions throughout the industry and beyond to bring about more inclusive technology for the next billion internet users.

With COVID-19 forcing us to look hard at entrenched problems of inequality, there’s a window of opportunity to ensure disadvantaged groups and communities aren’t left behind, whether women or those in regional areas outside big cities. 

It’s encouraging that countries like the Philippines are making digital skills and jobs part of their economic recovery plans — but we also need measures to close specific digital divides.  

The Asia Foundation’s Go Digital ASEAN program is a step in the right direction. Backed by funding from, and with the support of Southeast Asian governments, the Foundation is supporting local nonprofits to teach digital literacy within traditionally underserved communities or groups, with a goal of reaching 200,000 people — half of them women. Here in the Philippines, the program is working with local implementing partners, Pailig Development Foundation and Clevergrit Web Services, to train 25,000 small business owners.

Finally, we should look to the long term, ensuring that digital literacy and skills — from online safety to critical thinking — are taught in schools as part of national curricula, building on initiatives such as Cyberpeace and #ThinkFirst from the Philippines. Too many adults today face the embarrassment and frustration of asking for help with the most basic functions of technology — investing in digital education today would prevent this cycle repeating itself in future generations.   

Understanding and mastering the internet is hard at the best of times, and all the more so among the disruption of 2020. But by taking action now, we can help the next wave of new users build their skills, become more independent, and realise their potential, with some help from their teachers — their family and friends — along the way.