Digital Literacy in Canada: From Inclusion to Transformation

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Submitted by Media Awareness Network 2010-07-06 14:24:17 EDT

Theme(s): Building Digital Skills

Executive Summary

This submission by Media Awareness Network (MNet) addresses the need for the Government of Canada to include digital literacy skills development as a cornerstone of its national strategy for the digital economy, and calls on the federal government to take a leadership role in supporting solutions that will create citizens who know how to use digital technologies to their fullest and who can think critically about digital content.

The discussion paper principally addresses the fifth theme of the government's consultation paper, "Building Digital Skills for Tomorrow".

However, as the consultation paper demonstrates, the topic of skills is a cross-cutting theme. Issues related to development of the skills Canadians need in the digital economy also arise in the sections on innovation, infrastructure, the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector, and digital media.

MNet's submission notes that Canada has fallen behind a number of other countries in the development of a digital economy – countries where development of digital literacy skills for citizens of all ages is central to their digital economy strategies. If Canada wishes to improve its digital advantage and build sustainable prosperity, it must do likewise.

In response to the principles, challenges and questions set out in the consultation paper, this submission:

  • Provides a more precise understanding of the skills and competencies Canadians require in the digital economy by explaining the concept of "digital literacy" as well as offering a digital literacy model that systematically relates the various digital skills discussed in the consultation paper to each other and to the major challenges facing Canadians in the digital economy;
  • Identifies the barriers to digital literacy that currently exist in Canada;
  • Proposes the implementation of a national strategy aimed at overcoming these barriers and closing the digital skill divides; and
  • Outlines an action plan for implementing this strategy that includes recommended actions, targets and timelines.

Key recommendations include:

  1. Creating a digital literacy taskforce to develop a blueprint for a National Digital Literacy Strategy;
  2. Supporting national research on the digital skills needed by Canadian children and youth; and
  3. Facilitating a summit of key stakeholders to discuss implementation through the education, government, community, and job training sectors.

Submission

A Submission to the Digital Economy Strategy Consultation

July 7, 2010

About media awareness network / Réseau éducation-médias

Media Awareness Network (MNet) is a Canadian not-for-profit centre for media and digital literacy. Its vision is to ensure children and youth possess the necessary critical thinking skills and tools to understand and actively engage with media.

MNet provides national leadership in advancing media and digital literacy and contributing to the development of public policy in this area. It is the largest provider of media and digital literacy resources and programs for the K-12 education sector in Canada. In addition, MNet's programs include community resources, public awareness campaigns and research on young Canadians' Internet use. The majority of its resources are a public asset, available through its Web site in both official languages to urban, rural, remote, northern and Aboriginal communities.

Acknowledgements

Media Awareness Network would like to thank Gerri Sinclair, Director Masters of Digital Media Program, CEO Centre for Digital Media and Ryan Nadel, M.A., Digital Media for their help in preparing this submission.

Advisory Committee members: Tom Perlmutter, Government Film Commissioner and Chair, National Film Board of Canada; Charles Ungerleider, Professor, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia; Sheridan Scott, Partner, Corporate, Bennett Jones LLP; Len St-Aubin, Telecommunications and Internet Policy Expert; Tom Jenkins, Executive Director and Chief Strategy Officer, Open Text; Ian Wilson, Strategic Advisor to the Stratford Institute; Phil McRae, Director, Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI), University of Alberta; and Michael Hoechsmann, Assistant Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University.

Digital Literacy in Canada: From Inclusion to Transformation was made possible by financial contributions from:

ITAC ACTI ONF NFB


Table of Contents


Executive Summary

Media Awareness Network (MNet) is a Canadian not-for-profit centre for media literacy and digital literacy. MNet has prepared this paper as a formal submission to the Digital Economy Consultation process that was launched on May 10, 2010 by the Minister of Industry Canada, in conjunction with the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) and the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages.

This submission principally addresses the fifth theme of the consultation paper, "Building Digital Skills for Tomorrow". However, as the consultation paper demonstrates, the topic of skills is a cross-cutting theme. Issues related to development of the skills Canadians need in the digital economy also arise in the sections on innovation, infrastructure, the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector and digital media.

The consultation paper notes that Canada has fallen behind a number of other countries in the development of a digital economy. Countries like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and most recently the United States, have made digital literacy a cornerstone of their digital economy strategies. If Canada wishes to improve its digital advantage and build sustainable prosperity, we must do likewise.

This submission asserts that there is a connection between Canada's declining performance in the digital economy and our failure to develop a national strategy that balances investments in technology and infrastructure with investments in the skills and knowledge Canadians need to use ICTs to improve the quality of their lives, increase productivity throughout the private and public sectors, develop innovative products and services, and create new media and digital content.

Digital literacy is that next step which gives Canadians the adaptive abilities they need to participate fully in the global digital society. It guarantees they will benefit from the digital economy and derive new opportunities for employment, innovation, creative expression, and social inclusion.

Attaining this demands a comprehensive national plan to ensure citizens have the resources to learn how to access, use, understand and create with digital technology. A national digital literacy strategy requires support throughout the K-12 and post-secondary educational systems, as well as programs that offer job training and skills development, drive new business practices, and promote increased public awareness.

Established and internationally accepted definitions of digital literacy are generally built on three principles:

  • the skills and knowledge to access and use a variety of digital media software applications and hardware devices, such as a computer, a mobile phone, and Internet technology
  • the ability to critically understand digital media content and applications
  • the knowledge and capacity to create with digital technology.

The concept of digital literacy expands notions of traditional media literacy and is tailored for today's dynamic, electronic mediums of communication and interaction. Practical skills form the foundation for the development of higher-level digital literacy skills that move users beyond participation in the digital economy towards the transformative areas of innovation, constructive social action, and critical and creative thinking.

In addition to the personal benefits of greater opportunities for learning, employment, and enjoyment, a digital literacy strategy will generate significant economic and social benefits for all Canadians.

These include:

  • Increased consumer confidence and trust in the online marketplace
  • Supporting Canada's capacity to innovate with digital technologies in the general workplace, healthcare, and educational sectors
  • Supporting the growth of Canada's information and communications technology industries
  • Supporting the development of Canadian digital media content

The implementation of a successful strategy for the development of digital literacy skills must have multiple components that address barriers for specific demographics such as: attitude, age, socio-economic status, language, and regional availability of resources. Strategies to increase digital literacy levels must account for these different barriers and, where necessary, implement targeted programs for specific populations and situations.

Evidence and best practice indicate that effective implementation of digital literacy programs should take place in four interlocking spheres of influence: Education, Job Training, Government, and Public Awareness and Community Programs. Efficient facilitation of such an approach demands stewardship at the federal level.

As the lead department in Canada's Digital Economy Consultation process, and the department that has traditionally driven Canada's digital agenda, Industry Canada is well-situated to oversee the establishment of a national plan for digital literacy that draws on the knowledge of the essential contributors to the digital literacy landscape. With the considerable expertise that already exists nationally, and the research and models that have been developed to support digital literacy strategies in other countries, the time is right for Industry Canada to implement a Canadian model for digital literacy skills development as a cornerstone of a national plan for the digital economy.

Recommendations

To ensure that all Canadians have access to essential training in digital literacy skills and that investments in technology and broadband infrastructure development be balanced by investments in digital literacy skills development, the federal government — most notably Industry Canada, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Heritage Canada — should:

  1. Immediately create a digital literacy taskforce comprising key stakeholders at all levels of government (both federal and provincial/territorial), as well as those representing business and communities across Canada, to develop a cross-jurisdictional blueprint for a National Digital Literacy Strategy.
  2. Support the implementation of a national study of students and teachers, to determine, from each of their perspectives, the digital skills that are needed by Canadian children and youth.
  3. Within one year host a Digital Literacy Stakeholder Conference that brings together a broader group of stakeholders from all four spheres of implementation to develop and launch a coordinated national strategy focused on strengthening digital literacy in Canada as a fundamental cornerstone of the digital economy strategy and to highlight government digital literacy initiatives.

In preparation for this conference, the Digital Literacy Taskforce should:

  • Prepare an inventory of digital literacy programs in Canada, including those provided by the federal government, provinces and territories.
  • Compile an inventory of digital literacy initiatives currently being implemented in other jurisdictions such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the US, including rationale, targets, and results to date.
  • Review the results of and the lessons learned from previous Canadian targeted digital literacy initiatives.
  • Review the current and potential roles of federal departments and agencies in leading and supporting a whole-of-government approach to the development of digital literacy.
  • Develop a national balance sheet comparing investments in technology development and infrastructure access with investments in digital literacy.

The Digital Literacy Taskforce should also study the following policy options and prepare recommendations for consideration by the conference. Such options should include:

  • Launching a comprehensive federal/provincial/territorial digital literacy initiative aimed at fostering digital literacy in:
    • K-12 and post-secondary learning institutions,
    • the marketplace, particularly among small- and medium-sized enterprises,
    • the general public.
  • Creating a national facilitator for digital media cooperative education programs and placements.
  • Establishing community technology centers in rural Canada as well as a national program to implement training amongst citizens — especially those who may be regionally, economically or socially disadvantaged.
  • Increasing collaborative research funding and commercialization support for digital media at the federal and provincial levels, using the program innovations launched by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council as a model for action.
  • Developing an online digital portal that incorporates easy to understand explanations of digital media, tutorials on how to use digital technology, links to relevant government resources, an easy to use forum where users can post questions about digital media, and a community resource section where users can find more information about digital resources in their communities.
  • Creating an online data portal where public information created across all forms of government and by any public institution is regularly published in a machine-readable format.
  • Establishing and maintaining a digital media knowledge transfer network for educators and companies to share information on digital media education and job training initiatives.

Introduction

Media Awareness Network has prepared this paper as a formal submission to the Digital Economy Strategy Consultation process that was launched on May 10, 2010 by the Minister of Industry Canada, in conjunction with the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages.

Before preparing this submission we familiarized ourselves with context, challenges and questions set out in relation to the five themes discussed in the consultation paper, Improving Canada's Digital Advantage: Strategies for Sustainable Prosperity.

This submission principally addresses the fifth theme of the consultation paper, "Building Digital Skills for Tomorrow". However, as the paper demonstrates, the topic of skills is a cross-cutting theme. Issues related to development of the skills Canadians need in the digital economy arise in its chapters on innovation, infrastructure, the ICT sector and digital media, as well as in the chapter devoted to digital skills.

Our submission therefore should be seen as addressing the digital economy strategy as a whole. For ease of reference, Annex A presents a list of all the contextual factors, challenges and questions this submission seeks to address. In addition, we have noted major points of linkage throughout.

In preparing this paper, we found ourselves in agreement with the following basic principles and statements of fact set out in the consultation document:

For Canada to become a leader in the digital economy, digital skills development must be fostered in all Canadians.

It is essential that all Canadians have the skill sets to be able to access, use and interpret a growing and increasingly complex range of digital information.

Complementary investments in labour, organizational skills, digital skills and other areas are required to realize the full potential of general purpose technologies such as ICT.

There are concerns that a digital skills divide is emerging, where some groups have less access to new technology and are falling behind in digital skills.

This is of particular concern because effective participation in the labour market is increasingly linked to digital competence.

The benefits of obtaining digital skills extend beyond improved work and learning outcomes…. Technology is pervasive in our society… and those with impediments are at a disadvantage as it can lead to a lack of access to information, government services, health care and education.

We also found ourselves in agreement with the following comment made in the consultation document:

A significant challenge in determining if Canadians have the skills and competencies required for the digital economy is a lack of a precise understanding of what digital skills are, and how Canada is faring in this regard compared to its competitors.

Against this background, and in response to the principles, challenges and questions set out in the consultation document, this submission has four main goals.

  1. Section 1, What is Digital Literacy and Why is it Important? Provides a more precise understanding of the skills and competencies Canadians require in the digital economy by presenting the concept of "digital literacy", as well as a model based on this concept that makes it possible to systematically relate the various kinds of digital skills discussed in the consultation paper to each other and to the major challenges facing Canadians in the digital economy.
  2. Section 2, Barriers to Digital Literacy, identifies the barriers to digital literacy that currently exist in Canada.
  3. Section 3, Digital implementation Strategy, proposes the implementation of a national strategy aimed at overcoming these barriers and closing the digital skill divides.
  4. Section 4, Recommended Actions, Targets and Timelines, proposes an action plan for implementing this strategy.

Taken together, these sections provide a comprehensive response to the discussion questions set out at the end of the chapter in the consultation document on "Building Digital Skills for Tomorrow". In addition, they address the skills-related challenges set out in the chapters on innovation, infrastructure, the ICT sector and digital media. Each section of this paper includes a preface describing its relationship to the themes, challenges and questions contained in the consultation document, as well as marginal notations making specific linkages where appropriate.

The consultation document notes that Canada has fallen behind a number of other countries in the development of the digital economy. As Annex B illustrates, many of these countries have made digital literacy a cornerstone of their digital economy strategies. If Canada wishes to improve its digital advantage and build sustainable prosperity, we must do likewise.

We firmly believe that there is a connection between Canada's declining performance in the digital economy and our failure to develop a national strategy that balances investments in technology and infrastructure with investments in digital literacy — in the skills and knowledge Canadians need to use ICTs to improve the quality of their lives, increase productivity throughout the private and public sectors, develop innovative products and services and create new media and digital content.

We welcome the opportunity the digital economy consultation provides to call attention to the urgent need to develop a digital literacy strategy for Canada. We are encouraged that the principles set out in the consultation document so clearly support the need for such a strategy. We look forward to discussing the actions that should be taken by all stakeholders in partnership to ensure that Canada regains its leadership position in the development of a sustainable, prosperous digital economy.


If the following document is not accessible to you, please contact the person below for assistance in obtaining the documents in the appropriate format.

Guylaine Verner
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada | Innovation, Sciences et Développement économique Canada
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