When we started planning the Digital Literacy + Coding pilot in late 2016, the landscape of digital literacy education was vastly different. Policymakers across Canada had begun to bring coding into conversations about skills and education, but digital literacy hadn’t yet emerged as a national focus. In fact, at the time, there wasn’t a well understood definition of what digital literacy encompassed.
A lot has changed since then. Ladies Learning Code re-emerged as Canada Learning Code to expand its national mandate to strengthen computer science programs and education. The federal government solidified its commitment to supporting digital education through CanCode, a two-year program that provided $50 million in funding to support opportunities for K–12 youth to learn digital skills (in 2019, the program was extended for another two years with an additional investment of $60 million). Provinces such as British Columbia and New Brunswick launched new computer science curricula. The City of Toronto launched an annual Digital Literacy Week (with our help!), which will be held for the third time this year. Programs across the country have been held with organizations such as Kids Code Jeunesse, Canada Learning Code, Actua, and Lighthouse Labs to provide training to K–12 teachers to incorporate digital literacy and coding subjects. Actua released an AI curriculum for high-school students, as well as the results of a survey assessing the confidence and attitudes of parents and youth towards coding. Throughout the course of this pandemic, these organizations have switched gears to offer online resources and experiences to support at-home learning. And so much more. This is a tremendous amount of progression in a short period of time, driving Canada ahead in its journey toward digital literacy for all.
Our digital literacy journey started with research on the growing impacts of labour automation technologies, which drew links between labour market resiliency and digital literacy skills. It also highlighted underrepresentation of a number of groups in the tech sector. As we embarked on this work, it became clear that even beyond the influences of automation, there is a need for us to understand what a universally inclusive model for delivering digital literacy education could look like—that barriers to accessing technology and digital literacy overlap with existing patterns of marginalization. We developed a model that was specifically designed to engage youth who did not have access to programming, and perhaps more importantly, youth who were not particularly interested in seeking out formal programs for any number of reasons. This is the challenge we set out to understand with the launch of the pilot, with the ultimate goal of helping inform future policy decisions.
Over two years, our pilot engaged key digital literacy stakeholders to help co-design the model, tested the model, pivoted to remain relevant, enlisted a powerhouse team of evaluators, and ultimately engaged almost 2,500 youth at six sites in five communities across Ontario. We shared our learnings regularly through quarterly blogs, with the goal of being open and transparent about what we were seeing. Concurrently, we continued our research to better understand the gaps and opportunities presented by a fragmented digital literacy education landscape.
The pilot provided strong confirmation that community organizations and libraries have a key role to play in filling critical gaps and overcoming barriers for youth accessing digital literacy programs, particularly for those underserved by, or disengaged from, formal digital literacy education.
Reflecting on what we learned
In the last year, we’ve turned our attention from pilot implementation to a concerted focus on evaluating the impact of the pilot, which came to a close in October 2019. We’ve spent recent months working closely with sites and partners to ensure program assets are repurposed, lessons are captured, and rolling those lessons up into a final report.
Now that the pilot is over, we’re taking the opportunity to share what we learned more broadly through our latest report Plugging In: Equipping community organizations to ensure digital literacy access for youth (or, if you’d like an abridged version of the lessons and recommendations, you can download our executive summary).
Lessons from the pilot point to a significant opportunity to work with youth to build skills and confidence, spark interest in pursuing further learning opportunities, and move more people along a path to inclusion in a digitizing economy.
Youth face a range of barriers to accessing digital literacy and coding education programs that include a lack of digital access (to the internet, data, hardware, and software at home or at school), a lack of access to education and training opportunities (e.g., due to financial and geographic barriers, lengthy travel times to programs that are further from home, and obligations such as caregiving or part-time work), and not seeing themselves reflected in the field, or in the groups where learning opportunities are offered. These barriers are glaring in the context of inconsistent availability of digital literacy education in public schools. Meanwhile, many out-of-school programs require participants to pay fees or bring their own devices, and are often concentrated in urban areas. While a number of organizations are working to fill these gaps and take down barriers, many could use support to expand their work and impact.
In 2020, we’ve witnessed the wholesale and urgent shift to digital across all aspects of society, which has created opportunities and deepened divides. The gap between those who have access to home internet and digital devices was already a significant challenge pre-COVID-19, often mapping onto other socioeconomic inequalities. As formal and informal learning, work, social connection, and public services moved online, the need for home internet and devices and the ability to use them has increased. The City of Toronto’s 2017 Broadband Study concluded that affordability, not infrastructure, was a central challenge and that significant geographic gaps remained in the open public wifi network, which is heavily used by those without reliable home access, often through public libraries and community spaces. As of the 2018 Canadian Internet Use Survey, fewer than 1 in 20 households with children under the age of 18 lacked internet access at home (4.2 percent for the lowest income quartile, and 0.2 percent for the highest quartile. However, many more households lacked sufficient devices: of those who had internet at home 58.4 percent had fewer than one internet-enabled device per household with higher rates among the lower income quartiles. Lower income households were more likely to rely on smartphones and tablets, which have memory and storage capacity limits and whose design is not suited to many educational activities.
The pilot provided strong confirmation that community organizations and libraries have a key role to play in filling critical gaps and overcoming barriers for youth accessing digital literacy programs, particularly for those underserved by, or disengaged from, formal digital literacy education. Community-based after-school spaces present a unique opportunity to drive increased access to digital literacy and coding education for youth. They excel at providing interest-driven learning opportunities and engaging youth in their respective communities who might otherwise not have access. Because community programs are informal, they tend to offer more flexibility in instruction, format, and modes of engagement than formal classrooms.
With the right additional financial investment and support, there is vast capacity in community organizations and libraries to deliver high quality digital literacy and coding education. To reach youth effectively with high-quality programming, community organizations and libraries need to be equipped with digital and physical infrastructure, staff training and support, and access to open-source learning materials. Programs need to be flexible to fit with the way that community sites run programming for local youth. Many sites need support to outfit themselves with the equipment best suited to their needs (for example, Chromebooks tend to be cheaper to purchase, but most youth—and adult facilitators—tend to be more familiar with the Windows operating system, in part because most schools are outfitted with PCs).
In light of the ongoing pandemic, the need for digital access and digital literacy have been greatly accelerated due to physical distancing measures. While many of our lessons from the pilot are centered on in-person support and learning, the fundamentals—access to resources and targeted support—remain relevant and will be applicable when we are able to gather in community spaces once again.
If anything, lessons from the pilot that highlight the need for support at sites hold true for youth at home. Beyond access to devices, ideal conditions for learning digital literacy and coding include access to adequate wifi, tech support and troubleshooting, physical safety, comfortable spaces, open-source learning materials, and guidance on adapting curriculum to learner levels.
Our work on this topic doesn’t stop here. We’re looking for new ways to scale our lessons from the pilot and develop further research projects centred on digital skills.