When the Digital Divides Us: International Literacy Day is a time for Action

September 8th, 2020 by Christine Pinsent-Johnson

Literacy has never been just about reading and writing, it’s also about access to information, civic participation, and opportunities. Digital access has become intertwined with literacy, especially during this public health crisis when so many of our activities and services have moved to online-only points of access.

The ongoing crisis has laid bare the digital inequities that have long existed in Canada where income, age, race, education level, and where you live impact digital connectivity, online engagement and opportunities to leverage expertise. It is not surprising that the same socio-economic categories align with less literacy proficiency. About 14-20% of Canadians are considered to have very low levels of proficiency across literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving. Canada has a wider than average gap between the highest and lowest levels.

We are learning to use new technologies and meeting new and increasing online demands. But many Canadians lost the tenuous access and learning opportunities they had. While some targeted and mostly community led measures were introduced, we lack a comprehensive and coordinated approach to digital and literacy equity. As we continue to ignore issues of equitable connectivity, online engagement and opportunities, Canada’s digital divide and its literacy divide widens.

Universal and affordable access is a first step because many simply cannot afford it (42% of Canadians and 39% of Ontarians with the lowest incomes don’t have a household connection). Imagine if you had to decide which essential basic needs you cannot afford so you can pay for your internet access. Low-income households spend a higher percentage of their budget on internet access and sacrifice other basic needs to pay for it, particularly if they have school-age children.

They also rely more on cell phones and limited data plans, which are carefully preserved and supplemented with public WiFi. This means they work harder to get online and spend less time online. For many, the combination of limited connectivity and curtailed online activity means there are fewer opportunities to build comprehensive digital repertoires. Many are less able to meet new and more complex digital demands in their lives and at work.

The ripple effects of digital inequity reach beyond the individual. People are not able to take full advantage of online government services; they aren’t able to leverage skills and knowledge to adapt to major personal and economic changes; and they aren’t able to participate in consumer research or government consultations. Government initiatives are less effective, and businesses have incomplete understandings of their customers. Digital exclusion is also socio-economic and civic exclusion.

Despite declaring internet access a basic right in 2016, Canada still does not have universal and affordable internet access. In a United Nations ranking of digital access, use and skills, Canada is losing ground, from its highest ranking of 21st to 29th. The Brookfield Institute concluded in 2017 that “Canada appears to lag behind significantly in promoting it”. Open Media reminded us only a couple of weeks ago that the $1.7 billion Universal Broadband Fund was first promised well before the pandemic and has still not been opened.

The ways many people supplemented limited and precarious access disappeared when public spaces closed. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, hundreds of thousands of low-income adults – including newcomers, people with precarious jobs or social assistance, and those with disabilities – were accessing the Internet and developing digital skills in libraries and adult learning centres for language, literacy, secondary credentials, professional certification, and employment.

At the same time, the need for a broad range of digital and literacy skills dramatically increased. In a recent survey we conducted, Ontario Literacy and Basic Skills programs estimated that less than 50% of their clients have household Internet access during the ongoing crisis. Nearly all adult basic skills programs began offering remote learning in mid-March. Many relied on texting, phone calls and mail for instruction and outreach.

The shutdown demonstrated that patchwork programs without long-term policies that ensure all Canadians can fully engage in digital spaces, with household access and devices, simply don’t work. Digital access and literacy inequalities need to be addressed together to prevent the divide from widening farther. Now is the time to act on the big shifts in people’s understanding of what the digital divide looks like and what it means as a result of the crisis.

Read more about the digital divide and experiences of limited and seamless access: https://alphaplus.ca/download/the-impact-of-ontarios-digital-divide/  

Opinion written by Christine Pinsent-Johnson, Organizational Development Consultant with AlphaPlus and Matthias Sturm, former Senior e-Learning and Research Consultant with AlphaPlus and currently a PhD candidate researching digital equity at Simon Fraser University.