The transition to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic left young people who lack home internet access at a disadvantage. In 2018, six per cent of 15-year-old students across Canada did not have access to a home computer for school. Moreover, 20 per cent had not been taught important digital literacy skills, such as how to evaluate the trustworthiness of online information. The sixth part of the Ryerson Leadership Lab’s Overcoming Digital Divides workshop series explored how Canada has tried to bridge the digital divide during the pandemic and how we can accelerate meaningful digital participation for youth: by expanding access to home internet, learning devices and digital literacy programs.

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Lack of digital access during the pandemic

With the transition to online learning during the pandemic, access to the internet has become a fundamental part of building a more equitable and just society, said Ken Sanderson, executive director of Teach for Canada. However, virtual learning formats negatively affected students who don’t have access to home internet. Many families with multiple school-aged children and only one connected device faced difficulties accessing online classes, said Kate Arthur, CEO and founder of Kids Code Jeunesse.

A Statistics Canada report assessing the online preparedness of children during the pandemic found that 63 per cent of households in the lowest income quartile had less than one internet-connected device per household member, compared to 56 per cent of those in the highest quartile. A lack of access to reliable internet connections and sufficient devices compelled parents and teachers to ask for support from community organizations to teach them how to set up computer programs, run online classes and create a safe and engaging virtual space for youth.

Young people who can’t connect to their peers online also face increased isolation and mental health challenges, Arthur said. Many also couldn’t find the support they needed at home, as parents also struggled to work from home while navigating online school, troubleshooting digital challenges and coordinating how to share devices among all household members. Young people also rely on mobile devices to communicate, learn and connect with friends and family, Arthur said — particularly during a pandemic that has transformed the ways we interact and build community.

The pandemic also revealed how the quality of technologies available to youth affects learning outcomes, despite many efforts by school boards and libraries to deploy devices to students through the pandemic. Young people need devices that are adaptive and updated, said Simona Ramkisson, senior manager of community development at the Wikimedia Foundation. Outdated devices do not allow students to carry out technical tasks, such as coding, to the same level that state-of-the-art technologies would. Providing youth with access to the right technologies requires that service providers understand the unique needs of the young people they serve — such as the specific challenges of youth with particular learning disabilities — to provide devices that best meet those needs.

In marginalized communities, young people are the digital leaders of their households, helping to navigate health and government services for older generations who may not have the language or digital skills needed to set up those services.

One of these challenges is addressing internet affordability concerns among youth in low-income communities, said Howard Moriah, director of operations at the Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough. Although there has been a rise in digital programming and e-learning resources, these are still out of reach for many low-income and Indigenous youth. In 2018, 4.2 per cent of Canadian households with children in the bottom income quartile did not have access to home internet, compared to 0.2 per cent in the top quintile. Particularly during the pandemic, disadvantaged youth faced greater risks of contracting COVID-19, and therefore stood to benefit the most from digital programs they could use without leaving home.

New and innovative digital learning resources cannot reach their full potential if they are not available to those most in need. Our policy-makers have not fully recognized the positive impact a long-term commitment to closing internet affordability gaps can have on our economic growth potential, particularly if more young people become digitally competent participants in the workforce.


The role of digital literacy and critical thinking

Access to devices is only one part of young people’s ability to meaningfully engage online. Digital literacy programs that allow young people to develop computational thinking skills and understand how technology works equip youth to do more than just navigate devices. These programs help them actively engage with technology and explore the ways in which they can add value to the digital world.

Young people are our society’s future programmers, coders and software engineers, Sanderson said. Therefore, their understanding of the digital space as a malleable system allows them to view technology as a tool that they can help shape and transform. Shifting from a focus on consuming technology toward a framework of contributing to the digital space is an important step in building our future workforce, Ramkisson added.

Moreover, critical thinking skills are an important part of digital education. Young people should begin to understand the value of their data, including how this information is collected, used and shared. Better digital awareness will allow youth to make informed decisions on privacy and security, especially among Indigenous communities and people of colour who face more surveillance in digital spaces, said Ramkisson. In those marginalized communities, young people are the digital leaders of their households, helping to navigate health and government services for older generations who may not have the language or digital skills needed to set up those services.

Empowering young people to lead in the digital space requires teaching them how to correctly evaluate information online. According to Ramkisson, young people used Wikipedia at unprecedented rates to fact-check the overabundance of online information that spread during the pandemic — a promising sign that youth are becoming more skilled at identifying misinformation and understanding differences in the quality of online knowledge.

Digital literacy involves not only developing critical thinking, but also creating a holistic value system that outlines the kind of digital environment our society should find desirable. Values such as inclusivity, safety and anti-bias are important to building young people’s digital resiliency and deepening their awareness of how they want to participate in digital spaces. Youth today are the first generation born into a world controlled by invasive technologies such as artificial intelligence, Arthur said. Technology companies should integrate a commitment to building safe and accessible digital programs, starting from their initial design phases, so we need our future digital designers to develop inclusive values and critical thinking skills at an early age.


Co-ordinated solutions to digital challenges

Providing young people with the digital support that they need requires co-ordinating partnerships between government, schools, industry and community organizations. Each of these spheres of influence is equally critical to alleviating challenges to digital access for youth in Canada, Moriah said. Small- and medium-sized enterprises can also raise capital for projects that expand digital infrastructure and literacy programs, Sanderson added.

After libraries and community centres shut down during the pandemic, homes became young people’s main digital access point. In a few American cities, such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Austin, Texas, local governments received federal funding to create community broadband networks, which considerably expanded affordable internet access to households in need. These initiatives required deepening partnerships with community organizations and elevating young people’s voices as decision-makers in the process. In addition, programs that co-ordinate device sharing and the reuse of refurbished devices can help expand digital access to low-income communities, reduce electronic waste and direct industry and government partners to communities in need.

A co-ordinated approach to improving youth digital access through device sharing can also help create integrated networks of private, public and community organizers that are well informed about the unique needs of vulnerable communities. These programs also provide the space for youth and other underrepresented stakeholders to seriously engage in policy development and programming, Moriah said.

Maintaining and expanding access to home internet and learning devices for youth in underserved communities should be a top priority coming out of the pandemic. The growth of social media platforms specifically targeted to youth and the spread of misinformation during the pandemic have rendered digital literacy and critical thinking skills imperative to protecting the safety of young people online. To create a future-ready workforce, Canada needs to invest in community-based digital infrastructure, incorporate youth voices in policy-making, and develop partnerships between diverse stakeholders in industry, government and community.