Universal digital skills development

Canada needs to invest in digital skills development, at all levels, for all ages, for all Canadians.

Easily said, and it might even make a good political slogan, but how do we get there, and why should we?

Let’s start with why the government should invest in programs that extend digital outreach to all sectors of society, with special focus on marginalized communities.

In today’s digital economy, digital skills are crucial for individuals to participate fully in the workforce and compete in the job market. Employers increasingly require workers who are comfortable with, if not proficient in, technology, data analysis, and digital communication. Digital skills are also needed to provide all members of society with equal access to information and opportunities. Without basic digital skills, certain individuals and communities may be left behind, facing difficulties accessing essential services, such as healthcare and government services.

Since digital skills enable individuals to take advantage of new technologies and to develop innovative solutions to problems, upgrading the skills of a disadvantaged community can help bring greater diversity to the marketplace, encouraging the creation of new businesses and jobs, and contributing to economic growth.

Finally, digital skills can improve quality of life by enabling individuals to access information, communicate with others, and participate in online communities. Digital skills can also help people manage their health and well-being, and make informed decisions about their finances and other important aspects of their lives.

There are many areas of the economy that seem to be crying out for improved efficiencies through a digital transition. When your pharmacy tells you that they are waiting for your doctor’s office to reply to their fax, don’t you feel like you entered a time warp and should be wearing a paisley shirt and bell bottoms? That is just the tip of the iceberg in possible digital-driven productivity improvements. As provinces and the federal government do battle over which politician will get credit for allocating taxpayer dollars to improve healthcare, almost all of us who have operated a modern era business can see opportunities to spend healthcare dollars smarter, using basic digital technologies.

But we would also need the stakeholders to buy in: Pharmacies, doctors, patients. There would be different learning curves for each group, and each member of each group.

Most logically, one would work with professional associations to reach the pharmacists and doctors. Develop focus groups to understand needs, let the associations interact with their members, reconvene, adjust the training, adjust the system interfaces, and test again. Keep that iterative cycle going as the systems evolve.

Perhaps there are lessons that we can apply from such an approach when we are looking at how to increase outreach for digital skills development to those Canadians who have not yet gotten connected.

We have learned from the various affordable broadband programs that low monthly fees simply aren’t enough to get many low income households online. We still need to help those households learn how to benefit, how to access the savings programs, how to get basic computer skills, where to go for help, and basic levels of online safety.

I have written before that we need to consider different approaches to affordable telecom service for vulnerable Canadians.

A recent podcast on Light Reading talked about the Benefits Data Trust, a nonprofit that helps people access more than $80 billion in unclaimed federal benefits in the United States. According to its CEO, Trooper Sanders,

Benefits Data Trust was founded in 2005, to both help people who are eligible for benefits, get screened, and help them apply for those benefits. And then also do what we can, working with public servants all across the country to improve these programs so that really, people can get the help they need with efficiency and dignity, and move on with their lives and make things better.

So imagine someone who has faced extraordinary difficulty navigating the SNAP program, or what used to be called food stamps, to buy a bag of groceries, or if you’re a mom, and you know, the rules that have you, dragging your child to a government office to physically prove that you are a parent, just to get a bit of help to buy some groceries to make sure that they are well fed. Imagine if that is your daily existence. And now you have a new program coming along around broadband, which is important, but it’s not the same as food, it’s not the same as as being able to go to the doctor… It’s important, but imagine that you live that type of busy life while you’re struggling to make ends meet and just get it through the day, you can imagine how applying for something like the affordable connectivity program would get squeezed out.

And that’s why it’s really important to make the eligibility and application process as easy as possible, to allow those, like benefits data trust, who can help people, make sure that those who can help, can do it. And it’s done in an ethical and responsible way. And then also, you know, to really make sure that we think about more broadly, how do we make our benefits system work efficiently and with dignity, so that it’s just the normal course of business that people can get the help, that we’ve, again, already gone through the hard political work of creating these programs. So why would we leave people without, just because of inefficiencies and indignities in the system?

There are a variety of digital connectivity programs and service available in different parts of the country, offered by telecommunications companies, and nonprofit agencies such as Computers for Success. In the US, the Benefits Data Trust sorts through the programs; how can we help those people who are eligible for benefits in Canada get screened, and actually apply? How can we help them understand the value of these benefits, in manner that respects their dignity?

Just as we might work with professional associations to reach out to doctors and pharmacists, can we look to associations, community centres, and agencies to help proselytize, winning over those who have not yet been convinced of the benefits of digital connectivity? Perhaps there is a model to be found with Connected Canadians, a non-profit organization helping older adults develop digital literacy skills.

Is there a need and an opportunity to create a Canadian version of the Benefits Data Trust?

Can we start by agreeing that Canada needs to invest in digital skills development, at all levels, for all ages, for all Canadians?

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