The concept of digital literacy seems like a win-win for everyone, so it’s hard to imagine that there would be a location or community in Canada where the idea of being connected and understanding how to use technology for communication would not be easily established. In fact, digital literacy does run into resistance for a variety of reasons. The very diversity that makes Canada such a hybrid blend of modernity and rural wilderness has much to do with it.
Barriers to Digital Literacy in Canada
The general governance and education approach in Canada is no different than any other developed country; citizens should be educated so that the country becomes a leader in digital knowledge, commerce, production, and skill. This is achieved through reliable and consistent access and a growing capacity to not just see but be able to understand and interpret content on the Internet just as easily as one does with a book or a newspaper. Recognizing that some groups are not proceeding at the same pace in the adoption of digital literacy means that further assistance need to be provided.
While the above sounds well and good, resistance and challenges to digital literacy goals include:
- Social elements.
- Economic capability.
- Geographic distance and location
- Demographic challenges.
In addition, these barriers are bolstered by additional elements often found in cloistered or homogeneous communities. Issues like attitude, economic class of the majority group, age commonality, similar-speaking groups, and haves versus have nots can arise. For example, local access to limited resources and competition can act as barriers. Any kind of barrier also needs a counter plan. Otherwise, the barrier will succeed in the long run against any digital literacy push, even with lots of attention and massive commitment.
It’s often the case that digital literacy is assumed to be the talent, adoption and skill of the young. That myth has long been held because it was generally members of younger generations who created today’s technology and most of its benefits.
Let’s face facts: there’s not a whole lot of computer programmers who started their businesses and products in their 60s. This concept plays out in technology adoption rates and related statistics. For example, almost all or 98 percent of teens up to age 24 have pure and fluent digital literacy. This figure drops, however, when the age measured gets over 45 years of age. It doesn’t mean that folks measured can’t read; these statistics are based on the ability to have and use online presence only. Yet here’s an interesting note – those over 50 are making up for almost two-thirds of the new users appearing on the Internet when the total Canadian population is measured.
Busting the Myth
Research in other areas of digital media literacy also contribute to overturning the youth Internet dominance myth as well. The youth, again, dominate adoption rates when examined just as a group in and of themselves. 93 percent own a computer, almost all know how to use a word processor program and browse the Internet, and almost all know how to email. However, teens don’t even make up one quarter of users producing actual content on the Internet through multimedia. Almost all of them are consumers, at least 4 out of 5 users when surveyed. That means someone else is doing the actual production, ergo older users.
As for who is designing and creating digital tools, this may likely be the more accurate reflection of youth dominating the picture. First off, tool designers are a small subset of society. Very few folks actually have the capability to design a program, software package or app. And among them, the designers are predominantly under 30, with most learning their skills in their late teen years and monetizing that skill in the 20s. However, these folks are a very small part of the overall Canadian digital population, so why does it matter? Because these are the folks who dictate how digital tools will actually work or be used. By controlling the method of how a tool is used, they essentially control the means of communication, behavior, content creation, and access. That’s a pretty powerful position. So it’s no wonder then that technology is often associated with the young, because it’s the young designers who are shaping, selling and marketing the tools used in digital land.
Clearly distance and geography have a big impact on Canada’s digital literacy. The land and divide create natural challenges for connecting digital wires, cables, conduits and tower signals. Even digital data thrown across great distances by high tower vaults can be disrupted easily by altitude and mass.
Moreover, Canada has plenty of mountains, valleys and plateaus to cause mass changes across the nation. Then, of course, there is the issue of climate and conditions. Communities that are further north are harder to deliver connection and software products to because natural conditions are hostile to man-made materials. Moisture, sun, wind, rocks and more all contribute to damaging equipment on a continuous, ongoing basis. That requires maintenance and repair, which can be hard in the same climates that are not hospitable to presence in the first place. So there’s no question that geography is a big player in how far digital literacy can reach.
The other aspect that affects the reach of technology is the fact that, unlike the U.S., Canada has vast areas of rural and wilderness land with little urban development. Most urban locations tend to be towards the south, on a belt adjacent to the Canada-U.S. border. That too contributes to a lack of resources and reach of technology in central and northern areas.
Network infrastructure is generally far more expensive to establish and maintain where it is exposed and out in rural areas. Moreover, the local population size is not sufficient in many cases to support the cost of such equipment without there being additional subsidies to pay for them. The local demand is insufficient to bring in investment as well. Therefore, digital accessibility doesn’t occur on a wide-scale basis in the affected region. No matter what the study, the impact of rural distance and remoteness remains a major factor to overcome for increased adoption rates.
This challenge is not completely overwhelming, however. Other countries with large geographic rural spaces have found ways to solve the problem. Australia, for example, refocused efforts on creating community shared access versus trying to boost individual access in rural communities. Much like libraries, this approach combines computer technology and serves it to the entire community as a single entity. The adoption rate is far higher as a result because people use the tools as they need to without a big personal commitment or outlay. They also get to read, learn, communicate, and research on their own terms and consistent with their rural lifestyle.
Even with digital literacy, the economic class a person attains has a lot to do with digital access and digital literacy. For most individuals, technology utilization means buying a computer and paying for software and access. Without the ability to pay for the equipment or services, a person is then subject to government programs, free access and slower transmission service where subsidized. This combination of issues has a dampening effect on adoption rates and conversion to digital literacy. The numbers speak for themselves: 94 percent of upper income Canadians are connected and digitally literate, while only 56 percent of low income citizens are similarly literate. There is a cost to access and the ability to pay at any age makes a huge difference.
Most of what is available on the Internet and technology is in English. There are plenty of programs in French and other languages, but the dominating paradigm in the technology world is English. For numerous tribal communities as well as French communities that have no English fluency, digital literacy is hampered. If folks can’t understand how to use tools’ instructions, they frequently don’t use them much. This principle plays out again and again in French communities until translation tools become far more available and accessible. Then adoption rates change significantly.
Digital literacy will continue to be a priority for social development in Canada. However, the country is clearly juggling its diversity of geography, people, and economics to make access available to everyone. This is a long-term strategy by any means, and the Canadian government knows this fact. So it may very well have to look into successful examples overseas that have managed to establish initial literacy and then build on those alternative approaches later on when they become more affordable.