adult education, digital literacy, equity, access, social inequalities

Digital Equity in Adult Education

November 16, 2021

Bio: A PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Education at SFU, Matthias Sturm works as a researcher at New Language Solutions, a not-for-profit in the newcomer settlement sector. After many years working with basic skills and immigrant language programs, Matthias returned to school, prompted by his desire to support educators and learners by researching digital equity. His doctoral project addresses the lack of research into adult learners’ use of digital technologies and how adult educators can support learners’ access to online resources and services.

How did your background and experience in adult literacy and basic education help motivate your research?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have become more aware of the need for online access and digital devices in our daily lives. Online-first or online-only access has become common, but this creates challenges for adults who don’t have digital access and the literacy skills required to navigate online with enough ease to accomplish tasks. In my work as a researcher on a project funded by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, I can see first-hand how online access, or lack of it, affects some newcomers in language and settlement programs and how educators work toward improving the lives of these students. My background in adult literacy and basic skills education has also helped me better understand how contexts such as low income, precarity, and lack of supports for adults can affect access. Yet the issue is not simply whether affordable, reliable, and adequate connections and suitable devices are available but also if/how they can be leveraged into tangible outcomes that improve people’s lives.

What is the goal of your current project, and what approach or methods are you using to accomplish that goal?

My doctoral project looks at newcomers’ settlement in the context of digital inequality and the need for effective participation, training, and tools that enable equitable access. The pandemic has given the topic of digital access more urgency, but at the same time made it virtually impossible to get in touch with those who experience challenges getting online in the first place. My study includes background questionnaires that gather data on students’ previous use of digital technologies for language learning, as well as their use of digital devices and online resources to support their settlement. Classroom observations generate data about how students interact with these technologies and how educators support them in their efforts. In-person interviews with students and educators as well as student-led focus groups also provide data for my study. Because of restricted in-person contact during the pandemic, some elements of my study protocol—such as the questionnaires, consent forms, and the video introduction to my study—have been moved online.

You’ve mentioned that digital access is a major challenge for the adults you work with and strongly related to systemic social inequalities. Can you say more about that?

Despite funding to build more technology infrastructure and support for low-income families, social inequalities are not only reproduced online but accelerated and compounded by race, income, age, education, location, and immigration and migration. (Adults who may not have necessary digital literacy and other foundational skills are often innovative and resilient users of online resources—so just imagine what a day with limited access may look like.) These disparities create new forms of social inequality, requiring closer examination of the move to online-first and online-only points of access. We need more research into how this move affects access to reliable (re)sources and online (dis)information, the role online problem-solving and available learning supports play, and what impact online supports have on people’s cultural and social capital. That is the way we build and use knowledge and networks to improve our lives. We also need to produce strong evidence about the role of adult education programs in supporting marginalized adults to access the resources and services they need. It is often difficult for adult education programs to prove that their value extends beyond the classroom. 

What have you learned from working with newcomers to Canada?

Working with adult learners—especially newcomers—has been rewarding in many respects. As a newcomer myself who has now lived in Canada for more years than not, I am reminded of my own settlement journey that stretched over many years. When I applied for Canadian citizenship a few years ago, I was working at the same time as an associate researcher on a blended learning demonstration project. Sharing my path to citizenship with newcomers, some at the beginning of their journey and others who had delayed their citizenship application for various reasons, was a wonderfully grounding experience. Newcomers come with varied experiences of interactions with government, community resources, and services—online or not. The way newcomers make sense of their new environment, build networks that support themselves and other newcomers, and meet the many challenges that come with settling in a new country continues to be an inspiration for my work many years after the beginning of my own journey as a newcomer.

What contributions do you see your research making to the field of adult education? What outcomes do you hope for?

I hope my research can shed light on the challenges many adults face in accessing resources and services in a time of online-first and online-only access. I also hope to provide evidence supporting the essential role of adult education programs and strengthen the position of educators through a purposeful use of TEL (Technology-Enhanced Learning) and blended learning that puts learning, not technology, at the heart of instruction. The pandemic has also given me opportunities to focus on writing for various audiences and engage with my research differently. For example, I have two chapters for a textbook on post-pandemic education currently in press. By way of online conferences, I have been able to reaffirm my connections with practitioners in the adult education sector, where job precarity and lack of paid release time for professional development are common. Writing for professional newsletters has also been a way for me to strengthen my connections. Lastly, the Certificate Program in University Teaching and Learning at the Centre for Educational Excellence at SFU was a wonderful opportunity to engage with my scholarship from a curriculum design and pedagogy perspective.

Matthias invites those interested in his research topic to join the conversation. You can reach him at or