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Why Closing the Digital Literacy Gap Matters


Diversity and inclusion are at the core of who Canada Learning Code (CLC) is and why we exist. While we pride ourselves on being an inclusive, welcoming place to learn, volunteer and work, we know that to realize our vision, all people in Canada to have the skills and confidence to harness the power of technology, computer science learning opportunities must be available to all. 

To better understand the common barriers to digital literacy and Computer Science (CS) education, specifically barriers for underserved learners, we know that more research is needed. 

In collaboration with MASS LBP, made possible through Amazon Future Engineer (AFE) funding, we embarked on a research journey to better understand the barriers for underserved learners within CS education. The findings are illuminating, confronting and urgent. 

We uncovered that many of the barriers faced by underserved learner groups when it comes to CS education extend into structural realities. In other words, the findings reveal that these underserved learner populations are not so much underserved as systematically excluded. 

As a leader in CS education in Canada, it is imperative that we continue to not only uncover barriers but share our knowledge broadly so collectively we can take action and make a difference. 

The full report is available for download here. Our hope is that you, too, will join us in acknowledging and working to dismantle the structures that systematically shut out many from the opportunities we all deserve, including opportunities to learn about and benefit from ongoing technological advancements. 

We encourage you to utilize and cite the findings in your work and contact us if you have any questions.

The remainder of this blog entry will summarize topline findings, providing transparency into CLC’s current standing and action plans against the report’s recommendations. 

Closing The Digital Literacy Gap: Findings from the report “Underserved Learners’ Access to Computer Science Education in Canada.”

So Why Does Digital Literacy Matter?

As the role digital technologies play in our lives continues to grow, there is no doubt that accessible CS education is needed in Canada. Basic digital and CS skills are becoming table-stakes as technology drives productivity, efficiency and innovation across industries. 

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced an unexpected and reactionary transition to online, it has become even more apparent that digital literacy is necessary and that most people in Canada are, in fact, not equipped with the skills needed to survive in a digital world. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, though confronting, those that face the most barriers to computer science education in Canada are folks from marginalized communities. 

Our research was centred on these marginalized communities with a focus on Indigenous peoples, Black people, and Immigrants to Canada to comprise what we describe as underserved learners. 

Individuals in these groups are less likely than others to have physical access to the resources needed to engage with CS education; are statistically more likely to live below the poverty line or in under-resourced communities, and/or have been historically excluded in Canadian society and continue to be disadvantaged in traditional educational settings and other public spheres.

The Facts 

  • Although there is no comprehensive collection of race-based data on learners in Canada, it is clear from other statistics and research that racialized learners in Canada are disadvantaged in education. 
  • The landscape of CS education across Canada is uneven. Canada has not adopted a national strategy for teaching digital literacy and CS in schools or on the job, despite repeated recommendations from experts. 
  • K-12 educational attainment continues to be low for racialized groups historically excluded and systemically disenfranchised in Canada.
  • Racialized groups continue to be underrepresented in Canada’s tech sector, and those that are represented face a significant wage gap.
  • Indigenous peoples participating in tech occupations are paid much less than non-Indigenous workers. In 2016, this gap ranged from $3,400 lower for Métis people to $30,000 lower on average for Inuit. 
  • Black tech workers are the lowest paid of all visible minority groups working in tech occupations. In 2016, their average salary was $63,000—over $13,000 less than the average for all visible minority groups and more than $16,000 less than the average for non-visible minorities.
  • Although many immigrants are skilled workers, most newcomers to Canada earn a lower wage than the average Canadian. In 2018, the median entry wage for immigrants to Canada was $30,100, in contrast to the Canadian median wage of $37,400. This wage gap widens, however, for visible minority immigrants. Racialized immigrant men earned 71 cents for every dollar earned by non-racialized immigrant men. In comparison, racialized immigrant women earned 79 cents for every dollar earned by non-racialized immigrant women.

Given that Computer Science skills are required for many well-paying jobs, it can be assumed that failure to provide accessible and affordable CS education to all will worsen the wealth gap that disproportionately affects Black and Indigenous peoples as well as racialized Immigrants in Canada.

The Approach

In early 2021, the project team leveraged a three-pronged approach to collect and analyze data for this findings report on digital literacy. The approach consisted of video and/or phone interviews with experts and educators who work with underserved learners across Canada. 

A questionnaire of educators and experts and a literature review of articles, journals and sources to seek out scholarship and statistics on underserved learners’ access to CS learning experiences in Canada. 

The sample population consisted of 34 individuals working with underserved learners from diverse backgrounds in all regions of the country via interviews and 110 respondents, 43 of whom self-identified as working with underserved learners via questionnaire. 

Interviewees discussed their experiences teaching underserved learners, their knowledge of these learners’ needs, barriers to accessing CS learning experiences, and the support that would be useful to them and their learners.

The Findings

Learners’ basic needs must be met to benefit from computer science education

When describing the needs and barriers experienced by their underserved learners, almost all interviewees began with descriptions of basic needs, including but not limited to food, housing and childcare. They noted these needs must be met to enable learners to successfully engage with CS education. 

An inability to meet these needs means individuals may be faced with food insecurity, housing insecurity, lack of childcare and lack of transportation and financial resources to fund extracurricular learning activities, all barriers to participation in CS education. 

Additionally, interviewees working with underserved learners reported that many of these learners lack proficiency in core curricular subjects such as math, science and literacy skills. Some interviewees particularly emphasized low math literacy and even a fear of, or aversion to, math as a likely barrier to engaging with CS. 

This trend has been observed elsewhere. Moreover, language barriers, low language proficiency and learning disabilities are highlighted as limitations to a learner’s ability to succeed. 

These barriers are amplified when combined with the diverse social, cultural and psychological obstacles impacting underserved learners. In speaking with interviewees who work predominately with Black, Indigenous and other racialized minorities, these learners experience many barriers due to racism and discrimination. 

These experiences of discrimination and racism can be likened to post-traumatic stress disorder and impact individual and societal experiences, including education. It is important to state that every community and learner is different, and needs and barriers that impact underserved learners should be assessed on an individual, case-by-case basis. 

For example, for many Indigenous learners, Eurocentric institutions may feel connected with—or even like a continuation of—residential schools and violent colonialism. 

Interviewees working with Indigenous learners spoke of the need to Indigenize education to create safe cultural spaces and communities for Indigenous learners attending non-Indigenous institutions. 

It should be specified that non-Indigenous instructors working with Indigenous learners must be particularly sensitive and devoted to asking for help from experts in Indigenous communities to help shape curricula, practices and spaces. 

Another example is Black learners, and a one size fits all approach to teaching methods which do not incorporate cultural practices or allow learners to see themselves or their cultures represented in textbooks, portraits of historical figures, and in many cases, their educators. 

Adding to this are subjective practices and low scholastic expectations for underserved learners. As previously mentioned, race-based data on learning outcomes in Canada is not robust. 

However, interviewees from the Greater Toronto Area spoke frequently about the practice of “streaming” Black students into lower-level courses, which disadvantages them in applying to university and, therefore, the ability to access careers in CS. 

Organizations and learners need greater access to hardware, software, and the internet

Research suggests consistent access to a computer from a young age and informal self-directed learning as ways to create interest in technology and cultivate a sense of proficiency with computer tasks. 

However, one of the most common and concrete barriers underserved learners face in accessing CS education is a lack of access to hardware, software and the internet. This scarcity of resources exists for organizations providing CS and technology learning experiences in communal settings and for learners at home.

A large number of interviewees noted that their learners do not have adequate home internet access. Many said that their learners simply could not afford internet access, while others blamed the inadequate internet infrastructure in Canada. 

Many educators said that outside of metropolitan areas—in some cases, not far outside—internet connectivity is so poor and speeds so low that its use is severely limited.

According to the CRTC, almost 86 percent of households in the country have the recommended broadband download speed of 50 Mbps, but in rural areas, only 40 percent do—and not only is the connection slower, but it’s usually more expensive as well. 

Interviewees working in schools and community organizations also noted a shortage of communal hardware for learners. Many noted that their organizations and schools lacked funding to secure new hardware and are reliant on hardware donations that are outdated or piecemeal. 

Interviewees also cited privacy concerns for free software that uses data mining, meaning they are unable to use these programs to support the education of their learners.

Learners need access to Computer Science instructors

Interviewees stressed that it is important to have CS instructors who belong to the same community as the learners they teach. Instructors from the community are more likely to have first-hand “insider knowledge” of the community’s culture. 

With this knowledge, they can shape or alter their curricula, teaching styles, and physical spaces to reflect the culture of the community. 

One large study focusing on over 100,000 Black students in South Carolina found that having just one Black teacher in grade three, four or five reduced low-income Black boys’ probability of dropping out of school by 39 percent. By high school, the same students had higher expectations of going to college. 

Despite limited research in Canada, it can be presumed that Canada would have similar outcomes. 

Learners need different types of Computer Science learning experiences

Learners need access to more flexible digital literacy learning experiences that meet their lifestyles, needs and aspirations. 

Given that many underserved learners may be working one or more jobs, attending school or caring for children, interviewees stressed the need for both online and in-person learning experiences offered on different dates and times with the ability to choose the pacing that best supports their learning and lifestyle. 

Interviewees also noted the need for structured and unstructured learning experiences where learners can build and break things in a judgment-free zone.

Learners need different types of lesson plans

Learners need access to more flexible CS learning experiences that connect to real-life and are geared to equip learners to teach other learners. Interviewees who work with learners learning to speak English want CS lessons that connect with ESL. 

In contrast, interviewees working with youth want lessons that connect with game development, augmented and virtual reality and other exciting methods and tools. 

Many interviewees that work across underserved learner populations requested “MIYO” (Make It Your Own) CS lesson plans that connect to cultural stories or traditions, further solidifying that individual learners and communities have different digital literacy needs. 

The Recommendations 

Support culturally reflective organizations that are working with underserved learners

Interviewees advised that CS education organizations provide support to culturally reflective organizations working with underserved learners. 

Interviewees requested the support of CS education organizations in the following ways:

  • Partner with and supply resources to culturally reflective organizations that want to start providing CS learning experiences.
  • Amplify the work of culturally reflective organizations.
  • Help culturally reflective organizations secure funding.

Create and provide “train the trainer” initiatives

Interviewees frequently recommended that CS education organizations offer “train the trainer” initiatives, which involve hiring and training community members to provide CS and digital literacy learning experiences to learners in their communities.

Make a “community connection” to learn whether direct service provision is needed, wanted and wise

Several interviewees strongly asserted that only culturally reflective organizations should directly engage with underserved learners. 

In talking about this process, interviewees warned that this method requires long-term commitment and cannot be rushed. Above all, it requires that the CS education organization establish trust with the community and centre the community’s needs and culture.

CLC’s Commitment to Closing the Digital Literacy Gap for Underserved Learners

To learn more about how Canada Learning Code is integrating these recommendations, please see our post Celebrating 10 Years Of Learning And Looking Ahead At Our Vision For The Future!

We genuinely believe that equity and inclusion are not a destination, rather a journey. Our goal is to understand better how to build our organizational approach to engaging with these communities in a way that is empowering and supportive of the long-term change we seek to see in providing these communities access and engagement with critical digital literacy skills. 

With the support of AFE and our donor community, we feel emboldened in our mission. Over the next years, we remain committed to providing critical access to CS education across Canada, whether in-person or live-online and putting key insights and learnings into practice to engage underserved communities. 

While we know that promoting equity at this crucial time cannot happen through access to CS education alone, we invite you to consider how you might support bridging this very real and deeply rooted divide. Stay tuned as we share our diversity, equity and inclusion strategy and roadmap, co-created with Feminuity in the coming weeks. 

In solidarity, 

Lucie Jeffers, Chief Strategy Officer

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