The digital divide leaves more Canadians offline than you think

Location and income shape digital literacy.
A new report shows that there are still many barriers to digital literacy in Canada. (Pixabay)

We like to think of Canada as a digitally sophisticated place, but depending on where you live, or your income, you can face real challenges in digital literacy.

"If you are living in a downtown urban centre and have disposable income, you can pretty much purchase any training you want," said Nisa Malli, a senior policy analyst at Toronto's Brookfield Institute. "But for people that are living in rural communities, [or] for people that are low income, often there just isn't programming available in their home community," she told Spark host Nora Young.
Policy analyst Nisa Malli (Alex Tran)

Digital literacy runs the gamut of computer competencies, from basic skills, to being able to use digital technology for work, to expertise in coding and machine learning.

Malli and her co-author, Annalise Huynh, recently wrote a report on the state of digital literacy in Canada, based on interviews with a range of people across the country, including teachers and policy-makers.

Malli pointed out that strictly in terms of infrastructure, approximately 86 percent of Canadians have access to home broadband. "But the speeds that they have access to and the cost of that internet varies drastically across the country," she said, adding that a basic internet package can cost $110.00 in the Northwest Territories, for example. While the CRTC has set a "target" of 50 Mbps for downloads, Malli said "many communities still don't have that." 

Even for students that have a device they can bring from home, they may not be able to afford data- Nisa Malli

Access needs to be ongoing, as well. "Consistent digital access both to the hardware, the software, the wifi, and mobile data is a foundational requirement for being able to build and maintain digital literacy," Malli said. According to her interview-based research, however, internet access varies widely in schools, even within the same board.

"Not every school in Canada has wifi. Even for students that have a device they can bring from home, they may not be able to afford data, so without wifi in the schools, the device becomes not a usable learning opportunity."