Community Gabfest: Real Talk about Digital Justice

featured image

On April 13, 2023 AlphaPlus hosted our seventh Community Gabfest.

The conversation starter was Digital Inclusion / Digital Justice: what does it mean to literacy programs?

This gabfest follows upon the discussion at Calgary Learns. Susan Lefebvre from Metro Toronto Movement for Literacy (MTML) got in touch to talk about how we can bring this conversation to Ontario.

We explored

  • the difference between Digital Inclusion (making sure everyone has the devices and connectivity they need) and Digital Justice (making sure that everyone can experience connectivity the same way).
  • what our roles as literacy practitioners are, if any, in each of these domains.

We used a Jamboard to guide our conversation: Wayfinders Gabfest 7 Jamboard.

We started by brainstorming some of the ways that digital technology benefits us and/or the learners we work with. I think this is the fullest Jamboard frame I have ever seen.

We looked at Bill’s story (see below) and talked about diversity of ways we see people using technology skills and literacy skills to navigate the world. We also talked about the assumptions that are made about who uses digital technologies (why and how they use them) and how that ties in with assumptions about who has literacy skills and skills deficit approaches to education.

We talked about what digital inclusion means. We concluded that essentially it comes down to issues of affordability and that as long as the provision of internet access remains a private sector, for profit venture, affordability will continue to be an issue–especially in an era where we seem to moving to more privatization of public services.

When we tried to answer the question about the role of literacy programs in addressing the issue of digital inclusion, as one person said, there was a “startling pause.” It was felt that it though would be quite natural and for people who work in literacy programs to be part of developing inclusion strategies because of their deep knowledge of the impacts and realities of lack of access, program workers are stretched pretty much to the limit. To add on the work of trying to solve a problem that is really one of government regulation and investment, as essential as it is, is just not feasible.

We rounded out the afternoon by grappling with the notion of digital justice. We reflected on Jane’s story (see below) and how access to your data and artifacts is a human right. We talked about how when we work with learners in online spaces, we are often in private spaces. The reason we get to use them for free is because our data and our attention is a valued commodity that gets traded on a market that is largely opaque to most users. People acknowledged that this is the sea we swim in — our ability to change the sea is quite limited but, in this case, there was a lot of energy in the discussion about the role of literacy programs in the digital justice domain. There is a lot we cannot change but we can use our literacy skills, our educator skills and our finely honed critical thinking skills to make the opaque transparent for ourselves and for the learners who are swimming alongside us.

We though that perhaps we could start with language. The jargon of digital spaces and the inconsistent ways language is used in different places and by different people is disruptive to connectivity. For example, are two-factor authentication, two-step verification and multi-factor verification all the same thing or does each term mean something different? Literacy people are language people. People saw ways that they could demystify the language as part of media literacy activities and lessons.

Audrey Gardner recommended a video to us on CBC Gem called “You’re Soaking in It” as a way to make this more understandable to ourselves.

We wrapped up by talking about how to bring this information to literacy learners and how to be transparent about the digital learning environments we are taking learners to. We thought one place to start might be the Media Literacy section of the Educator Network Blended Learning Toolbox.

Tracey and Guylaine were sparking with ideas about other ways AlphaPlus can support the field in this endeavour. More on that soon.

Thank you Gabfesters for your energy, generosity, wisdom and friendship. With your help, we won’t fall off the learning curve.

The Calgary Learns Digital Justice Panel

“A digital justice approach to literacy education asks not if people can access the Internet and digital technologies but rather how different groups experience online worlds.” — S. Smythe and D. Pelan (2019) Digital literacy and digital justice

Here is the link to the video of the discussion panel.

These are the articles we were invited to read before the panel:

And these links were shared at the event:

Digital Justice Case Studies

from S. Smythe and D. Pelan (2019) Digital literacy and digital justice

Neil Selwyn (2010; 2014) asks,
“Who benefits in what ways from Internet connectivity?
How does the Internet amplify rather than disrupt existing social patterns and relations?”
(p. 96).

Welfare offices often do not provide help with the application process, nor access to the technology, and so applicants are referred to libraries and community agencies such as tech cafés for help. This requires people to share intimate details about their lives with people they may not know well, an often demoralizing and humiliating experience, and ironically one that people are warned to avoid in the interest of data privacy. The multi-step welfare application process also requires an active email address (and therefore a password and password recovery protocol) and a current digital photo uploaded with the application (requiring a camera, skills to save and upload the photos and so on). The consequence is that people often fail in their welfare applications the first time, moving into deeper precarity.

Google has redesigned its verification protocols to prevent the use of stolen devices and hacking. This is no doubt a positive development for many, but carried catastrophic consequences for Jane, a precariously housed woman who relies on public access computing and who must keep her most precious information on the cloud. Jane lives in a women’s shelter and relies heavily on her Gmail account to communicate with friends, family and work. She uses her cloud storage to keep important photos and documents safe and accessible but does not have her own device, instead relying upon one of the many public computers available in the community. Changes to Gmail’s security features led to flags of suspicious activity because she logs in to multiple computers each day. One afternoon her login attempt at a community centre was flagged as possible “hacking”, with a warning message that because she was logging in from an unknown device she would need to verify that she owned the account before she could access it. Ownership could be verified by a secure access code texted to the phone number she provided when she set up the account or, by verifying the month/year the account was created, then answering the security questions she set up at the time. Jane no longer has access to the cell number listed as the phone was recently stolen, a sadly common occurrence for citizens who stay in shelters. The account was created such a long time ago that Jane could no longer remember the exact month. Indeed, who among us could remember that? After several attempts Jane’s account was locked ‘until she could provide proof’ of ownership. But there were no other options for proving ownership and in those few moments, Jane lost access to her vital documents, contacts, phone numbers, and main method of communication with no way to retrieve them. Such experiences of disconnection are deeply disruptive and traumatizing for those with histories of personal loss and abandonment.

Bill often attends the tech cafés to learn more about how to use his laptop. He is confident and fluent in his online activities and an active participant in social media. One day, Bill brought in a paper-based form for housing and asked if we could help him find it online but unfortunately, the housing provider would only accept hard copies of the application (a rarity indeed)! This caused Bill enormous anxiety. After a brief discussion it became clear that English was Bill’s second language, he did not see himself as a good speller, and he felt that he did not have legible writing. He stated that this made him feel stupid even though he wasn’t. He preferred to do the form online as the computer would correct his spelling and sentence structure. As digital literacy educators and researchers, situations such as this lead us to question the boundaries between print and digital literacies, and linear views of skills that place people in categories of ‘who is ready’ for digital literacy and who is not. For Bill, digital technologies allowed him to overcome the barriers of print literacy, even if the design of the system still posed difficulties.