Everything from education and work to health care, social services, food and grocery orders, and social connection have had to change to deliver more services online in response to COVID-19. Even front-line organizations like emergency shelters and community centres that did not previously prioritize online access had to rapidly build capacity to offer virtual resources and supports. This pandemic pivot poses challenges for people who have little to no access to the internet.
In First Nations communities, just 30 per cent of households have internet connections with the recommended speed required to participate in online school, to work from home, or access health care and information. In fact, internet access during the pandemic is emerging as a social determinant of health that has long unequally impacted historically under-resourced communities and specific demographic groups like women, newcomers and seniors.
In addition to barriers to work, school and health care, the pandemic has also impeded political engagement. For example, in Newfoundland and Labrador’s recent election, voters were required to register online for a mail-in ballot. Issues of access and connectivity effectively excluded some voters who became frustrated by the new process.
Not surprisingly, given the effects of the pandemic, much of the emphasis on Canada’s digital divide has been on digital access. When talking about internet access, there is often a focus on the urban/rural divide. Rightfully so, given the impact of this geographic divide on Indigenous communities, low-income families, and Francophones. But Canada’s digital divide is not only geographic. It is embedded in social, economic and cultural contexts, and it intersects with categories of race, class, gender and age. Often, these multiple and intersecting forces are left out of conversations about digital access.
At MediaSmarts, Canada’s not-for-profit centre for digital media literacy, we advocate for an intersectional analysis of digital inequality to capture the full extent of the digital divide. This intersectional approach acknowledges digital-literacy education as an essential component of the strategy for addressing this ongoing and deepening divide.
Often the solution to the digital divide is centred on providing more access – through increased digital infrastructure and access to devices. While these efforts to improve access are obviously important steps, we see them as the first steps. As the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) points out, “providing better access is one thing; giving people the tools and resources they need to become digitally literate (and safe online) is another issue altogether.” Access alone cannot close the digital divide. Access to the internet and networked devices is the starting point for developing the digital literacy skills needed for ethical digital citizenship and online agency.
For example, while access to networked technology is necessary to register for a COVID-19 vaccine, so are the skills required to find and share trusted online health and science information. Similarly, working and learning online has implications for users’ privacy and information protection. Understanding these privacy implications requires that users develop critical digital literacy competencies. Canadians may have a device and adequate internet access, but without the fundamentals of digital literacy (to use, understand, and create with networked technology), users will not necessarily benefit from all that the internet has to offer.
The right to digital literacy
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.
As the Brookfield Institute points out, digital literacy is a social justice issue through which economic, social, cultural and civic gaps can be reduced. Acknowledging the right to digital literacy increases access to online opportunities, particularly for marginalized groups (such as women and girls, Black, Indigenous and otherwise racialized communities and newcomers). MediaSmarts’ digital literacy initiatives support this research.
For example, the DigitalSmarts program (delivered in partnership with YWCA Canada) for under-represented populations in the digital economy (including seniors, immigrants, persons with low income, language minorities, persons living in rural/remote communities and Indigenous persons) demonstrates effectiveness in positively impacting participant confidence levels, knowledge, intentions and behaviours online. DigitalSmarts participants express increased confidence in their ability to find trustworthy information sources, make informed decisions and protect their personal information when online.
Poor access to digital educational resources in racialized, religious minority and Indigenous communities leaves individuals, particularly youth, vulnerable to racism, hate and other online harms. Digital literacy resources can prepare, engage and empower youth to push back against hate online by incorporating strategies for how to respond to, and disengage in, situations of online prejudice.
There is also a lack of diversity in the digital literacy community, among researchers, practitioners, educators, program developers, policy-makers and industry leaders. This problem of representation is linked to larger issues of access to digital technology and inclusion in online spaces. A lack of adequate and meaningful representation within the digital media literacy community translates to policies and practices that do not consider the immediate concerns or experiences of diverse and historically marginalized communities across Canada.
Digital literacy turns the focus away from only digital access to the acquisition and development of critical skills that will allow individuals to use the internet in a meaningful and beneficial way. It is not an outcome in and of itself but rather a tool necessary for education, employment and economic participation, civic engagement, social inclusion, safety, empowerment, and health and wellness. For these reasons, digital literacy is a fundamental right of all technology users.
MediaSmarts has created a digital literacy framework (or roadmap) for Canadians that starts with access as the basis for online participation, then builds an interrelated set of creative and critical skills, including:
- Use: the technical fluency needed to engage with computers and the internet.
- Understand: the critical fluency needed to comprehend, contextualize, and critically evaluate digital media to make informed decisions online.
- Create: the creative fluency to produce content and responsibly engage with content that other users have produced to effectively communicate through various digital media tools.
More than 20 years of research and educational work at MediaSmarts demonstrates a strong need and desire for greater digital literacy supports. Unfortunately, a lack of consistent and ongoing funding, coupled with a focus on short-term technological solutions and digital infrastructure, impedes this work.
Canada needs long-term investment in a national digital literacy strategy to fully realize the right to digital literacy. Alongside a commitment to nationwide broadband by 2030, Canada also needs an immediate commitment to digital literacy education that acknowledges the multiple and intersecting barriers that people face in accessing, using and understanding digital technology. Closing the digital divide through digital literacy will empower Canadians to use, understand and create with digital technology, which is at the heart of digital citizenship and innovation.
This article is part of the Digital Connectivity in the COVID Era and Beyond special feature.