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Researchers and educators gather at forum on digital equity and inclusion

July 02, 2015

On May 15, 2015 the Faculties of Education of SFU and UBC co-hosted the Mapping Digital Inequalities forum, bringing together 45 teachers, librarians, community development workers, health-care workers, adult educators and researchers concerned with equitable access to digital technologies and to digital literacy education in BC’s Lower Mainland. The goal of the forum was to develop a research and action agenda for digital equity and to continue collaborative work toward these goals.

Although digital access is essential for education, democratic participation, information and employment, Canada’s national and municipal digital strategies do not adequately attend to the dimensions of access such as affordability, connectivity (sufficient speed and data to upload, download and stream content), learning opportunities and access to working devices. Canada’s target Internet speed of 5 mbps is one of the lowest in OECD countries, yet the costs are some of the highest.

The morning panelists addressed teaching and learning in public computing sites. Suzanne Smythe, Sherry Breshears and Angelpreet Singh of the SFU Faculty of Education described how adults who depend upon libraries and neighbourhood houses for digital access must navigate different tools, software, operating systems, pedagogies and rules for participation. The burden on their digital literacy skills is often higher than for those who have proprietary access to digital tools. Dionne Pelan and Mark Smith of the UBC Learning Exchange noted that their peer-to-peer computer tutoring program “contributing through computers” reduces the anxiety and expert-driven discourse associated with computers and builds community capacity: this is a new kind of learning where skills are shared and knowledge is distributed. Marcus Gomez of the anti-poverty advocacy group ACORN-BC described ACORN’s campaign for an affordable Internet, the sacrifices that low income families make in order to maintain their Internet connection, and the difficulties people have finding work and communicating with government. He noted the challenges of reaching out to people experiencing these difficulties when they do not have Internet access.

At the Mapping Digital Inequalities Forum.

The afternoon panel addressed digital equity issues as they relate to school-aged children and their families. Esaine Mo, a school settlement worker, noted that school administrators cannot assume that families, particularly new immigrant families, have access to computers through which to book parent-teacher meetings, pay fees or communicate with teachers. In fact, family experiences of access vary greatly across the Vancouver district with implications for parental involvement in school and children’s ability to complete homework. Vancouver Public Librarian Karen Sharkey described the extensive work that librarians do to support digital literacy needs in the community, but notes that privacy and pride are often at stake for people when they must get help with personal government forms in the public space of the library. Librarians are always looking for ways to adjust and tailor digital learning for a diverse population; the recently opened Inspirational Lab at the Central Branch of the VPL marks a new focus on digital production as an important form of digital equity. Davina Gallagher of Vancouver Coastal Health spoke of the challenges of accessing medical records and services, including health information, if one does not have regular digital access, raising questions about new inequalities in health care provision.

Finally, Ron Darvin, a UBC doctoral student studying digital equity and practices among youth in Vancouver secondary schools, argued that we should not only consider IF young people have access to the Internet and digital tools, but also to the KINDS of practices in which youth are able to engage and how these practices are valued. Ron pointed out that it cannot be assumed that all youth are confident digital producers, suggesting the importance of pedagogies that attend to how digital practices are distributed and valued.

At the day’s closing participants decided that the cross-sector sharing and collaboration modeled at the Mapping Digital Inequality forum should continue. We agreed to meet online and face-to-face to further a digital equity agenda, starting with a plan to participate in the CRTC’s review of basic telecommunication services, to ensure that the experiences of those with unstable digital access are heard in this consultation. Those interested in joining this online collaboration and learning more about research ideas and activities stemming from the forum can visit:

We thank the UBC Centre for Digital Literacy and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council IDG for their support!

Suzanne Smythe
Ron Darvin