Across the country, libraries, community organizations and social programs are helping people apply for jobs online, open social media accounts and learn basic office software. Kids are playing with programming toys in the classroom and competing in robotics competitions. Coding boot camps and post-secondary programs are training the next generation of digital professionals.

The growth of digital literacy programs, with a range of promising delivery models and curricula, is exciting. There is a wide array of programs available, some entirely within the formal K-12 and post-secondary education system and other led by nonprofit and private sector actors working alongside, and sometimes in partnership with, schools, colleges and universities. However, the landscape of opportunities for learning digital skills is fragmented and difficult for some learners to navigate. Many people in Canada are at risk of falling through the cracks, unsure what skills they are missing, how to develop them and how to make sure they aren’t left behind.

Although leaders from the public, nonprofit and private sectors alike recognize the need to invest in Canadians’ digital skill development, there is a lack of analysis of what is being taught and where, where the gaps are and where new approaches may be needed. The Brookfield Institute’s report Levelling Up: The Quest for Digital Literacy, to be published in June 2018, aims to shed light on this area, mapping the landscape from early childhood education to programs for seniors, and from “Introduction to Windows” to video game design, virtual reality and other advanced digital skills.

The research reflects interviews with over 90 experts and practitioners, including digital literacy education and training providers; school boards and teachers; policy-makers at all levels of government; and academics studying digital literacy, the digital economy and technology in the classroom. Here are some of the key findings that emerged.

  • Digital literacy, and the skills and capabilities that it comprises, are continuing to evolve as technology advances and becomes more pervasive. Individuals are under pressure to remain up to date in order to facilitate civic and social participation, access public services and succeed in a digitizing economy.
  • Although coding is an in-demand digital skill, the curricula should also include computational thinking and computer science theory, which is needed to understand, use and create digital tools and products. And at the more advanced end of the training spectrum, the digital skills required go beyond coding and Web/mobile application development to include data science, cybersecurity, digital production and creative arts, and machine learning and artificial intelligence.
  • In their quest for digital literacy development, learners are moving between educational sectors, programs and fields, building career and learning pathways that may pivot and take sharp turns or — in some cases — missteps. Coding boot camps are seeing an influx of computer science students seeking hands-on learning to complement their university and college programs. Public libraries are providing computer access and one-on-one support for learners to self-teach, and nonprofit and for-profit organizations are creating K-12 curriculum materials and programs for teachers and school boards.
  • For people who live in urban centres, have disposable income and also have a high level of literacy and numeracy, it is relatively easy to access the right for-fee training to upskill in their profession, or to transition into the jobs that interface with technology.
  • However, despite funding commitments for Internet, hardware and training, including federal government programs like CanCode, the Digital Literacy Exchange and the affordable access program, Canada still suffers from a digital divide. Low levels of digital literacy continue to overlap with other aspects of socio-economic marginalization, including low incomes, low levels of literacy and numeracy, and remote and unnetworked communities. Digital access (to hardware, software, Wifi and data) and access to training in digital skills are foundational requirements for building and maintaining digital literacy and confidence using technology.

For learners, navigating this shifting landscape of emerging technologies, skills and programs is complicated, even for the most digitally savvy. There are quite a few areas where action is needed; here are some.

  • Targeted programming and support for people who belong to groups that are currently underrepresented in the tech sector and who face barriers in accessing digital access and digital literacy.
  • Programs to help learners looking to move from beginner to advanced and intensive courses, including programs designed for midcareer retraining, for tech sector jobs and for jobs outside the tech sector that engage with digital technologies.
  • Clearer pathways through the education and training landscape, including navigational support for learners looking to understand their skills gaps, choose between programs or move between programs and sectors.
  • More training and support for teachers at all levels of the formal education system, including training in how to use, build and teach digital technology and how to include technology in the curriculum.
  • Sustainable, long-term commitments to fund digital literacy at all ages and skill levels including evaluating and scaling successful pilots; tuition subsidies for high-cost programs; and funding for hardware, software and Internet access across Canada.
  • Rigorous evaluation of what works, including tracking student outcomes and pathways through the landscape of programs and assessing the digital skills that different demographic groups have, that learners are gaining and that employers are seeking.

While Canada is making important and exciting strides in the area of digital literacy, we still have some way to go. To be able to keep pace with changing digital capabilities and applications, we need an inclusive, dynamic and connected landscape of programs and policies that will keep evolving along with the digital world and supporting all learners in their quests for digital literacy, no matter where they start or what their end goal is.

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Annalise Huynh
Annalise Huynh is a policy analyst and designer at the Brookfield Institute. She is interested in how careful research, design, and design thinking approaches for policy can reach people who wouldn’t otherwise be a part of decision-making processes.
Nisa Malli
Nisa Malli is a senior policy analyst at the Brookfield Institute. Previously she has worked for federal and municipal governments and managed nonprofit digital literacy programs.

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