This opinion piece was written by Nisa Malli, a senior policy analyst with the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BII+E) where she leads research on technology, labour and inclusive innovation-driven economies. Digitally Lit(erate) is a digital literacy + coding pilot led by the BII+E and jointly funded by the Ontario government and philanthropists Janice Fukakusa, Greg Belbeck and family.
In Hamilton, Ontario, 12-year-old Karen* is learning how to add colourful design elements to her website with CSS code. Karen is part of the second cohort of Digitally Lit(erate), a digital literacy and coding program run out of her local Boys and Girls Club, where the internet is more reliable than her low-speed home connection and she has access to new computers and software.
Funded by the Ontario provincial government and philanthropists and led by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship in partnership with community organisations, Karen’s class is one of six locations across the province. The program has been designed for and with youth aged 12 to 15 from demographics and regions underrepresented in the tech sector. At each site, instructors and facilitators guide participants through hands-on learning, catching them up when they miss classes due to work, family obligations, or other conflicts.
“The quest for digital literacy is not yet a fair one”
The quest for digital literacy is not yet a fair one. For those living in urban areas with disposable income, their own computers and home internet, the right training is easy to purchase. But low levels of literacy continue to overlap with other aspects of socioeconomic marginalisation, and many people are at risk of falling through the cracks, unsure what skills they need and unable to access the right support.
Canada’s changing digital literacy landscape
In Canada, formal education from pre-kindergarten to high school provides a substantial amount of digital literacy education. Education is led by provinces, territories, and First Nations, and teaching spans for-credit courses in computer science and digital creative arts, after-school robotics and cybersecurity competitions, and the use of technology across the curriculum to support learning in other subjects.
However, implementation across the country remains uneven, and differences between provinces, territories, schools and individual teachers can have a huge impact on learner progression, confidence and even internet access.
Recently, some provinces have formally introduced coding into their education curricula, coupled with funding to support teacher education and classroom technology.
“British Columbia announced $6 million in funding to launch a compulsory coding curriculum”
In 2016, the British Columbia provincial government announced $6 million in funding to launch a compulsory coding curriculum from kindergarten to age 14, with optional classes in high school. The province’s Applied Design, Skills, and Technologies curriculum also includes high school classes in web development and computer programming, digital communications and media design, electronics and robotics and coding for manufacturing.
In the same year, the government of Nova Scotia made a $1 million investment to support coding in schools from kindergarten to age 18.
Provinces like Manitoba and the Northwest Territories have chosen to infuse technology and digital literacy concepts throughout the curriculum. Individual teachers are also using this approach in other jurisdictions, developing creative ways to apply coding, data analysis, social media and online collaboration tools to existing curricula.
But not every province offers formal coding classes, and not every school has access to high-speed internet. Some communities and school boards are getting creative to fill the gaps. Just last year, three municipalities and a school board formed their own non-profit fibre optic internet service, upgrading the community from internet speeds between 10 and 100 megabits/second to up to 1,000.
While inequality persists, consistent digital access (to hardware, software, wifi and data) is a foundational requirement for building and maintaining digital literacy and confidence using technology — increasingly critical skills for work and public life.
As technology advances, the baseline digital skills that people need have not changed that much — we all still need to be able to click a mouse, find information online and send an email — but user interfaces and hardware have changed substantially.
Touch screens and voice activation are becoming more common, and everything has gotten faster and more lightweight. People with lower incomes are constantly at risk of being left behind by the latest product developments, and people with lower levels of digital literacy can struggle to catch up with the new releases.
“Today, digital literacy is vital for civic and social participation”
And though the baseline skills we need have not changed, the upper limits of what technology can do and how embedded it is in our everyday lives has increased drastically. Today, digital literacy is vital for civic and social participation, accessing public and private services and success in a digitising economy.
At all ages, access to digital literacy education opportunities remains a challenge for low-income learners, those in rural and remote communities and those with low levels of literacy and fluency in English and French.
Until all children and adults can access fast internet and consistent and excellent formal digital education, community programs, such as Digitally Lit(erate), will remain vital to filling gaps. They provide welcoming, low-cost and accessible learning environments and help open doors to future training and career paths. — Nisa Malli
*name changed for publication
(Picture credit: Flickr/City of Seattle Community Tech)