A national digital literacy strategy

Last week, MediaSmarts released “From Access to Engagement: Building a Digital Media Literacy Strategy for Canada” [pdf, 2.9MB].

The report is an output from a symposium held in February. MediaSmarts has been advocating for digital literacy for more than 15 years, since its earlier incarnation as the Media Awareness Network, and you will see references to digital literacy on this blog dating back almost as long.

A national strategy will provide experts, advocates and service providers in the digital media literacy field with a unified but flexible approach for preventing and responding to online harms through education and critical skills development. At the same time, people living in Canada will be empowered to use, understand, create and engage with digital technology and digital media, which is at the heart of active digital citizenship and innovation.

Unfortunately, Canada doesn’t have an accurate baseline to measure our digital media literacy skills, unlike some of our closest trading partners, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, or Australia. As I recently noted, digital literacy appears to be a significant inhibitor in increasing adoption of internet connectivity among vulnerable populations eligible for affordable broadband and devices. The report notes “that when it comes to digital participation, access to technology and training is crucial for historically marginalized people in Canada, including Indigenous communities, people living in poverty, newcomers and people with disabilities.”

A recent article in Policy Options by the report’s authors observed “Access alone cannot close the digital divide.”

Digital literacy is more than technological know-how. It includes various ethical, social and reflective practices essential to developing online resilience and ethical digital citizenship. We must then embed these practices in our work, learning and daily life. Approaches to digital literacy that overemphasize access, hard technological skills and risk-avoidance constrain rather than bolster user agency. The risk is that while most people do not need coaxing to use digital technology, many users become deeply immersed in online life without the necessary digital literacy skills and supports.

Let’s take a look at that last sentence. I would agree that “most people do not need coaxing to use digital technology”, but we also need to consider the challenge of digital literacy training for those who do need coaxing. While the number of folks who don’t use internet is closing, last week’s release from Statistics Canada [Full Report: pdf, 820KB] shows there is still over-representation of some groups that are getting left behind. Statistics Canada data identifies age and education among the most significant factors impacting internet skills.

We are making progress. Statistics Canada reports “Fewer Canadians are on the ‘have not’ side of the digital divide”.

From 2018 to 2020, the shares of Canadians identified as either Non-users or Basic users of the internet and digital technologies declined by almost 5 percentage points, from 23.8% to 18.9%. This represented a shift of almost 1.4 million Canadians from the ‘have-not’ to the ‘have’ side of the digital divide.

Leaders of the various low-income broadband programs (Connecting Families, Connected for Success, Internet for Good) may be able to provide valuable input to help inform the development of Canada’s national digital literacy strategy on factors influencing non-adoption of internet connectivity. As I wrote last year, “we have learned that getting people online isn’t just a matter of price.”

Of those who do not currently use the internet, a significant portion attribute their lack of online activity to issues of digital literacy and concern for cybersecurity.

Access alone cannot close the digital divide.

Canada needs to place greater emphasis on development of digital literacy among users and non-users alike.

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