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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.

Digital literacy starts with computers

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains announced a $1.25M one time cash injection to the Computers for Schools program to provide 7,500 refurbished computers and technical support to Syrian refugees.

Computers for Success Canada—Ordinateurs pour l’excellence Canada (CFSC-OPEC), through the Computers for Schools (CFS) program, makes available refurbished computers at little or no cost to those who may not otherwise have access to technology and opportunities to learn digital skills.

It is great to see the Minister investing in digital literacy skills for people who are disadvantaged, a theme about which I have written a few times in the past – maybe more than a few times [such as here, and here and here and here, among others].

All the low-cost broadband in the world won’t help a family that can’t afford the up-front cost of a computer. Recall my opening comments from The 2015 Canadian Telecom Summit last June:

I will repeat what I said last year: “Kids need computers at home to do homework.”

Six weeks ago, south of the border, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote:

Students who lack broadband access at home are unable to complete basic schoolwork. They have trouble keeping up in the classroom. More than that, they are holding our educational efforts back.

The homework gap is the cruelest part of the digital divide. But we can take steps now to tackle it — steps that will help students get their schoolwork done, help expand access to the Internet, and help grow our digital economy.

Canada’s Digital Strategy, follows the politically attractive path that continues (and expands) the subsidy systems based on geography. Hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed to subsidize rural and remote regions without regard to the actual financial needs of consumers.

It is great to see the Minister targeting aid on the basis of need. As I have written before, too often, government programs have looked at providing cash on the basis of geography without focusing specifically on those who need help, regardless of where they live. It is an important message for the CRTC as it prepares for the opening of its Review of basic telecommunications services hearing next month.

The 2016 Canadian Telecom Summit will include a session looking at “Strengthening Canada’s Digital Advantage in a Hyper-connected Global Economy”, hosted by Namir Anani of the Information & Communications Technology Council (ICTC). (ICTC has just released a national digital talent strategy paper.)

The Canadian Telecom Summit takes place this year from June 6-8 in Toronto. Have you registered yet??

Digital literacy leadership

Last fall, I wrote about TELUS launching a free program to improve digital literacy and online safety, for children and adults to help advance “Wise Internet and Smartphone Education”.

TELUS WISE will offer seminars and online resources that will help keep all members of Canadian families safer online. It is not just an online resource; TELUS WISE ambassadors will come out to any local community group to conduct in-person seminars on Internet and smartphone safety – a workplace, community centre, school, parenting group or senior’s centre, for example. Individuals can also book a one-on-one session with trained staff at more than 200 TELUS stores. Educational materials will also be available on a secure portal, available to anyone who wants to educate themselves on the safe use of smartphones, tablets and computers.

Two weeks ago, TELUS was recognized by CACP, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, for helping Canadian families stay safe online.

CACP has officially endorsed TELUS WISE, which has already reached more than 350,000 Canadians. The CACP Board of Directors is encouraging policing services to use the TELUS WISE program across the country, making the program materials and resources available to families in their communities.

The TELUS WISE program has two components – one aimed at adults and a second (called “TELUS WISE footprint”) which appeals directly to youth. TELUS regularly schedules free, in-person public TELUS WISE seminars led by specially-trained TELUS team members at convenient public locations. Groups of ten or more can book their own seminars in the workplace, at a community centre, in a school, at a parenting group or seniors’ centre. Individuals can also book one-on-one sessions at more than 200 TELUS stores nationwide. TELUS WISE and TELUS WISE footprint educational materials are available on a secure TELUS WISE portal for anyone interested in self-education on the safe use of smartphones, tablets and computers.

In our opening remarks at The 2014 Canadian Telecom Summit, Michael Sone and I called on the telecom industry to step up to provide the digital leadership that Canada needs.

We need to create the right conditions for Canada to lead in a global digital economy:

  • We need to drive a greater degree of digital inclusiveness for all Canadians, young and old, urban and rural, regardless of their economic station.
  • We need programs to increase digital literacy and access for disadvantaged Canadians.
  • We need to drive increased adoption of Information and Communications Technology in business
  • We need to improve ICT adoption in all dealings with government, especially in improving the quality and efficiency of health care delivery, and
  • Our customers need to be confident that they can engage online securely and with their privacy safeguarded.

… it may be up to those of us in this room, gathered here at The Canadian Telecom Summit, representing the leading stakeholders in Canada’s innovation agenda, to develop and impart the vision to create a Digital Canada.

TELUS WISE is precisely the type of private sector leadership of which we spoke, “to develop and impart the vision to create a Digital Canada.”

The program deserves the recognition it received from CACP.

Improving digital literacy, wisely

Later this morning we will see the launch of the TELUS WISE initiative today, a program available to Canadians free of charge to help advance “Wise Internet and Smartphone Education”.

TELUS WISE will offer seminars and online resources that will help keep all members of Canadian families safer online. It is not just an online resource; TELUS WISE ambassadors will come out to any local community group to conduct in-person seminars on Internet and smartphone safety – a workplace, community centre, school, parenting group or senior’s centre, for example. Individuals can also book a one-on-one session with trained staff at more than 200 TELUS stores. Educational materials will also be available on a secure portal, available to anyone who wants to educate themselves on the safe use of smartphones, tablets and computers.

It is a two tiered program, both of which are free, with TELUS WISE, targeting education for adults and TELUS WISE Footprint, aimed at kids aged 8-18. The TELUS WISE Footprint program is a secure online portal, offering interactive challenges for kids to learn how to stay safe online. There are comic-strip scenarios, identifying common mistakes children often make online with key topics like cyberbullying and predators. School-age children can earn money for their school’s cyberbullying and digital citizenship programs by completing interactive challenges.

Over the past 11 years, Cybertip.ca has received over 94,000 reports from the public, which have led to over 125 known arrests, and more than 62 children removed from abusive environments. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research has some interesting and disturbing statistics on cyberbullying in Canada. Any participation in bullying increases risk of suicidal ideas in youth.

Jane Tallim, co-executive director of MediaSmarts.ca said “Our belief is that children and youth need critical thinking skills to engage with media as active and informed digital citizens.”

I applaud the private sector leadership in developing and promoting this national digital literacy and cyber-safety program. It is the first of its kind in Canada. The TELUS WISE program promises to not only assists parents in the education of their children of any age, but it also wants to help start a dialogue with aging parents about identity theft and how to stay protected against scam artists and other exploiters.

It is great to see TELUS working to improve Canada’s digital literacy, so wisely.

Progress on digital literacy?

Back in April, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics issued its Fifth Report, entitled “Privacy and Social Media in the Age of Big Data“. Among its recommendations was a soft one on Digital Literacy: “The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada continue to provide support to digital literacy programs.”

Last night, I saw the government’s response to the report:

Digital literacy and skills are at the core of what is needed for individuals to succeed in today’s online economy. In this regard, the government makes significant investments in skills development programs, including those that target digital literacy. For example, Budget 2011 announced that Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) would reallocate $60 million to support digital skills and enrolment in key disciplines, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

A number of important initiatives arise from the Budget 2011 reallocation. For example, Skills Link is dedicating up to $10 million annually over three years (2011–14) for projects to support digital skills development among disadvantaged youth. Digital Jobs of Tomorrow has received nearly $1 million for a project carried out by the Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow’s ICT Skills, a group of information and communications technology (ICT) industry leaders, in conjunction with the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). In 2011, the project launched the CareerMash website and career awareness activities for schools and students to promote ICT career awareness. HRSDC also provided both core and project-specific funding to the ICTC to contribute to the development of a digitally skilled workforce and improved ICT labour market intelligence.

As well, up to $4 million over two years was committed for a digital skills competition to improve awareness of ICT-related education and training programs, while $9 million of the HRSDC Skills and Partnership Fund is being invested over three years to encourage and support the training and employment of Aboriginal people in the ICT sector.

In its March 28, 2013 Response to the Report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, entitled Labour and Skills Shortages in Canada: Addressing Current and Future Challenges, the Government of Canada stated that ensuring that Canada has the skills and labour force it needs now and in the future is one of the greatest socio-economic challenges facing the country. It further recognized that this will require not only concerted action, but also innovative thinking, approaches and partnerships. In view of this, as announced in Economic Action Plan 2013, the government is taking steps to address these labour market challenges by partnering with provinces and territories, employers and other stakeholders to target skills development investments in high-demand areas.

The Response also recognized the shared responsibility for Canada’s labour market success, which requires multiple stakeholders to play important roles in this respect. Provinces and territories, which are responsible for education, have a central role to play in developing digital literacy and skills. The government will continue to work with its provincial and territorial partners to develop tomorrow’s digital workforce.

The Government of Canada is committed to protecting the privacy of Canadians and fostering an environment that will enable individuals and businesses to participate, innovate and contribute to the growth of the digital economy.

Are we making progress on the release of a comprehensive digital strategy?

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