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Comprehensive Digital Literacy is the Key to Canada’s Future

The need for digital literacy is at an all-time high, mainly because it ties into so many facets related to how nations develop and adapt technology.

The Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BII+E) realized this and took it to task to study how it impacts Canada’s ecosystem with their Levelling up: The Quest for Digital Literacy report. BII+E dive into the landscape of digital literacy policies and programs across Canada, looking at government, private and non-profit initiatives, as well as who is being left behind as technology becomes more ingrained in everyday life.

“Digital skills and capabilities have become critical for Canadians to fully participate and be productive in an increasingly digital economy,” said Sean Mullin, executive director of the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship. “Yet, navigating Canada’s dynamic landscape of digital literacy training and education is complicated, even for the most digitally savvy learners. As a country, we need to think critically about how to enable more widespread and equitable access for all our citizens.”

The report is exhaustive in the sense that it covers the changing definition of digital literacy, its global landscape, the current state of digital literacy in schools right now, other methods to learn, and possible challenges learners will face.

BII+E defines digital literacy as “The ability to use technological tools to solve problems, underpinned by the ability to critically understand digital content and tools. This can include the more advanced ability to create new technological tools, products, and services.” A section of the report also places emphasis on digital hygiene, a newer term that encompasses the sustainable and purposeful use of digital devices. This means updating operating systems regularly to stay up to date with security, backing up files, and using strong secure passwords.

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The report makes the case that simple digital literacy, such as introductions to coding languages, is not enough to keep up with the evolving landscape of technology. The curriculum should shift to bring in aspects of data science, cybersecurity, digital production, and even bits of AI. Essentially, a new take on digital literacy should focus on transferable skills associated with computational thinking, as opposed to learning how to code in Python. Think of it like teaching critical thinking, but with a distinctly technological flair. This sentiment echoes an Actua study published earlier this year, though that was more focused on diversity and inclusivity.

“In the future, data science is not going to be an exclusive specialized area for a select few,” Shingai Manjengwa, founder of Fireside Analytics writes in the report. “It’s going to be part of any computerized work stream. The more computer-based and automated we become, the more data will be infused into every job and role and industry.”

In terms of ways to learn these skills, Canada has a multitude of options, but they are not accessible to everyone. “The landscape of informal education remains an open marketplace in which learners who have the funds to do so can choose from a variety of programs, in-person and online, while those who do not may be left behind.”

There is a distinct lack of an official pathway for informal digital literacy training, which means those who do not have the resources to access specialized programs (or even those who are forced to pivot quickly from one field to another) are often left lacking the basic skills to understand the fundamentals.

BII+E calls for policymakers and program leads to better track the outcomes through their digital literacy landscapes. Despite the troves of data from coding bootcamps and STEM post-secondary programs, there are numerous gaps that prevent a cohesive picture of how Canadians gain digital skills in the country, with some outlined below.

  • Data on enrollment in non-STEM digital courses at the post-secondary level (e.g., web layout for journalism students, R and Python for social scientists).
  • Learner pathways between programs and throughout careers (e.g., identifying how many computer science students are taking summer bootcamps, which programs are helping learners transition into the tech sector).
  • Overall participant outcomes such as dropout rates, completion, employment, further education.

Despite some shortcomings, there are still groups doing great work in the space, as well as formal education pathways teaching the fundamentals students need to succeed. Google and Actua have recently made investments into the STEM community, the federal government invested $30 million this year into digital literacy programs for those who would benefit most, Brookfield themselves teamed up with Ontario to launch a digital literacy pilot project, and organizations such as Canada Learning Code have educated close to 100,000 citizens.

Despite all of the above initiatives and funding, there is still a distinct need for investments in digital literacy for all Canadians. An emphasis must be placed on skills aside from coding, and if Canada’s National Cyber Security Strategy outlines anything, it is that the best way to protect the nation and its inhabitants from any digital threats is to make sure they are well-versed with all kinds of tech.

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