(10 minute read)

Myriad social justice issues surround online learning and the digital divide in Canada. This article attempts to identify critical issues that are necessary for Canada to address to overcome the existing digital divide that poses numerous barriers to online learning. The digital divide that socio-economic conditions around the world have created, specific to online learning, has deep roots that require national policy changes to address historic economic and political disadvantage” (Einarson, Goodes, McCarthy, Reid, & Samokishyn, 2020; Grace, Stratton, & Fonseca, 2019). The digital divide means different things to many people. For the purpose of this article, the digital divide is addressed as threefold: (a) access to technology (device and services), (b) access to culturally appropriate content, and (c) digital literacy skills to engage with technology and content (Grace, Stratton, & Fonseca, 2019; van Deursen & van Dijk, 2013). Similarly, for the purpose of this study and article, online learning is addressed as twofold: (a) teacher-led instruction through synchronous and asynchronous activities—with ongoing feedback and assessments, and (b) massive open online courses (MOOCs) and student-paced courses (Crosslin et al., 2018). This article will focus on K-12 online learning and these multi-faceted implications of the digital divide in Canada. To narrow the extensive area of content and perspectives, I will focus this exploration under the following three headings:

  1. Historical linkages and future implications of the digital divide.
  2. Assumptions about the use of educational technology.
  3. The effects of COVID-19 on the digital divide in Canada.

Lambert (2018) develops the social justice components of Open Educational Resources and Open Educational Practices by defining three principles of social justice: (a) redistributive justice which we may see through initiatives to provide devices or Internet connectivity and data packages to marginalized communities; (b) recognitive justice, whereby content (print or digital) is revised to be more historically accurate, with broader and more diverse narratives, giving “voice” to previously marginalized groups (i.e., based on gender, race, ethnicity, geography); and (c) representational justice, whereby content reflects the many diverse people that have been historically left out of content visually (i.e., photographs, art), represented in their own words, language and vernacular. These three principles will be used as lenses throughout this article to examine the components of the digital divide in Canada. The digital divide is “not about a simple binary of youths who have technological access and those who do not,” but also an educational challenge that calls for decolonizing content and digital literacy skills (Jenkins, 2009, p. 18).

Historical Linkages and Future Implications of the Digital Divide

The digital divide in Canada has historical linkages that stem from settler colonialism (Houlden & Veletsianos, 2019, p. 1013). Empire-building relocated many Indigenous groups to rural and remote areas, while Canada built its business and technology sectors out of urban centres. Throughout the1800s, the Canadian government imposed and created treaties with Indigenous groups to establish control over the territory’s natural resources. “In making the Treaties, the government had promised to provide assistance to First Nations to allow them to transition from hunting to farming. This aid was slow in coming and inadequate on arrival. Restrictions in the Indian Act made it difficult for First Nations farmers to sell their produce or borrow money to invest in technology” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015, p. 94). In 2020, we see a different lack of investment in technology: a lack of negotiated investments in information and communication technologies for urban, rural, and remote Indigenous communities in Canada (Clement, Gurstein, Longford, Moll, & Shade, 2012).  “Computer use is ever less a lifestyle option, evermore an everyday necessity, inability to use computers or find information on the web is a matter of stigma, of social exclusion” (Lyman et al., 2005, in Jenkins, 2009, p. 19). Canada’s current political and social infrastructure is a direct result of settler colonialism—broader forces that have shaped “the design and provision of online learning” (Houlden & Veletsianos, 2019, p. 1006).

In 2015, the summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) provided recommendations to educate Canadians about the historical injustices—and ongoing legacies of Canada’s residential school system for Indigenous children (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015). The further truths uncovered, and Calls to Action established by the TRC, outline a comprehensive plan to work to overcome the social exclusion and inequities faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, established over the 150 years of Canada’s existence and development as a nation (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, pp. 319-337). The digital divide is one symptom of social inequity in Canada that predominantly affects Indigenous peoples and socio-economically disadvantaged groups (poor) in urban centres (Clement et al., 2012). The content divide and digital literacy skills are also a direct product of settler colonialism in Canada that perpetuate socio-economic inequity (Houlden & Veletsianos, 2019). The TRC’s Calls to Action identify the need for a direct partnership with Indigenous peoples in Canada and the Canadian government, aimed in part, at addressing social inequities (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015). Indigenous-led community informatics (CI) projects and online learning initiatives are one facet of Indigenous, and non-Indigenous education, that address some of the TRC’s Calls to Action. Negotiated funding from the federal government to support digital and social infrastructure for Indigenous-led CI projects has been identified as an important element to overcome the digital divide in parts of Canada (Beaton, Burnard, Linden, & O’Donnell, 2016; Clement et al., 2012).

Projects such as “the Indigenous owned and controlled KMobile service [that] began in the Sioux Lookout zone of northwestern Ontario, an area about the size of France that supports 26 remote and isolated Indigenous communities,” point to models that support a reduction in the digital divide (Beaton et al., 2016, p. 112). Public infrastructure development funds that go directly to local communities versus private enterprises have led to more successful and sustainable Internet access (Beaton et al., 2016, p. 112; Clement et al., 2012). Some deficits in access to formal education due to temporal and geographic factors can be addressed through online learning established by local educators respective of cultural content and context (Houlden & Veletsianos, 2019; Selwyn, 2010). More aggressive national efforts to eliminate the digital divide by applying the provisions of Canada’s Digital Charter in Action (Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada. (2019), providing Internet access and bandwidth to rural and remote communities, can complement Indigenous owned and controlled CI infrastructures (Clement et al., 2012).

Social justice issues continue to permeate the digital divide in terms of both technology and content, for many Indigenous peoples in Canada, as well as marginalized communities in remote and urban areas. Canada’s Digital Charter in Action is one political initiative aiming to address redistributive justice through technological infrastructure and access. However, more criticality, specifically critical academic studies, and more awareness at all levels of government need to be employed to decolonize content and pedagogical models that currently frame much of  Canada’s online learning (Clement et al., 2012; Houlden & Veletsianos, 2019). The current COVID-19 pandemic is hastening the government’s digital strategy plans to eliminate the digital divide in Canada by 2030 (Clement et al., 2012; Tunney, 2020). However, there is much work to be done above-ground on recognitive and representational content and techno-solutionist claims of “anytime anyplace” delivery of online learning (Houlden & Veletsianos, 2019, p. 1005). Techno-solutionist claims posit that technology by itself can have democratizing effects, fixing “broken” schools by solving many of the challenges in education such as closing achievement and opportunity gaps (Watters, 2020, para. 4, 6; Weller, 2020).

Assumptions About the Use of Educational Technology

Canada is no different from many countries in its techno-solutionist assumptions about the use and the benefits of educational technology. Selwyn (2010) makes clear that the use of education technology is a social construct that cannot be understood through a technocentric lens. Seymour Papert (1990) warned us about the limitations of technocentrism in the last century, that the focus cannot be on the technology, but needs to be on students and learning goals. Technocentrism (centrality of technology to answering questions and solving problems) broaches some elements of the digital divide: the necessary technical components (device, Internet, bandwidth). However, it excludes the other two-thirds of the divide: decisions about content and digital literacy skills (i.e., research skills, the ability to curate content, the ability to compose content – all using digital media). Cronin et al. (2018) posit that

despite efforts to open education, the levels of inequality are the highest they have ever been. Why? Because despite open education, the knowledge that is made open to everyone is best utilised by those who already had wealth and power. The Knowledge Gap theory argues that as information is increased in a society, it is absorbed differently by recipients depending on their socio-economic status. Those with higher socio-economic status are better aligned to extracting higher benefit from the educational possibilities available. (para. 3).

We have begun to witness a digital “Matthew effect,” whereby those who already have digital access and skills are increasing those skills, while the people who do not have access to information and communication technologies and digital literacy skills, are falling further behind in the skills that many jobs in the 21st  century demand (Grace, Stratton, & Fonseca, 2019; Watters, 2015; Weller, 2020). Briggs (2013) explored the Matthew effect by referencing the simplicity of Rigney’s (2010) book entitled The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Advantage. Nonetheless, technocentrism has evolved into technological determinism (notion that technology determines a society’s cultural and social values) and technological solutionism (technology holds the solutions to societies’ problems—not people, or the way that people use the technology), all playing dominant roles in how educational technology is promoted to school boards, teachers, and parents (Selwyn, 2010; Watters, 2015).

In the context of K-12 education, technology developers have promoted technology as “a means-end” way of thinking, as a solution to meet gaps in student learning (Selwyn, 2010, p.66; Watters, 2015; Weller, 2020). Out of critical technological solutionism and technological determinist research have come valuable studies and conversations about pedagogy and content from critical academia ( Selwyn, 2020; Watters, 2015; Weller, 2020). Questions about digital literary skills, digital pedagogies, teachers’ digital competencies, and what we are teaching students are becoming more difficult to overlook (Selwyn, 2020). The how, why, and what (i.e., content) of digital pedagogy have not evolved with the technology being offered (Hargittai & Walejko, 2008; Selwyn, 2020; Watters, 2015). For the purpose of this article, digital pedagogy is partly addressed in the content and skills aspects of the digital divide. While digital pedagogies and competencies are not the focus of this study, it is important to note that pedagogy is indeed intertwined with the creation and delivery of digital content on many levels. Provincial educational technology oversight bodies that address how educational technology is used by teachers and students, to promote digital literacy skills, may be a part of future models for change in K-12 digital education (McCarthy, 2020a). However, I will continue to focus on the digital divide as threefold: (a) access to technology, (b) content divide, (c) and digital literacy skills that are collectively an integral part of the effectiveness and relevance of online learning in K-12 learning environments.

The interrelationship between technological innovations and change in K-12 learning environments for Canadian students has been disjointed and fraught with layers of complexities. Many educational technology tools have been provided to some students, while other students have none (Einarson, Goodes, McCarthy, Reid, & Samokishyn, 2020). Secondly, educational institutions and teachers have largely not made a necessary paradigm shift in how and what is being taught, to match the new digital tools with essential digital age skills and content (Selwyn, 2020). Many educational institutions generally reflect mainstream western culture and science and under-recognize, or ignore, indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing (E. Einarson, personal communication, July 23, 2019, May 14, & June 1, 2020; Mascarenhas, 2012). Such pedagogical and content issues, call for necessary shifts that encompass recognitive and representational justice that involve: “Socio-cultural diversity… Inclusion of images, case studies, and knowledges of women, First Nations people and whomever is marginalised in any particular national, regional or learning context… [As well as,] Self-determination of marginalised people and groups to speak for themselves, and not have their stories told by others” (Lambert, 2018, p. 228).Recognitive and representational justice initiatives, in the form of textbooks, content, and course design, need to be a more prominent part of change in K-12 online learning environments to address the digital divide.

Current and Future Effects of COVID-19 on the Digital Divide in Canada

There is virtually no country in the world exempt from COVID-19 and the force it has had on magnifying societal inequities such as access to healthcare, access to education (now online), shelter, and susceptibility to disease due to employment conditions. The digital divide is but one symptom of systemic inequity in Canada that has been amplified by the pandemic. Different private and public sectors have been forced to address glaring inequity issues through various initiatives that are hoped to outlive the immediate societal needs of the health crisis. The City of Toronto recently moved to create permanent housing opportunities for homeless people to manage exacerbated health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic (Casey, 2020). “The current crisis has reinforced the fact that high-speed Internet access is no longer a luxury” (Baril, 2020, as cited in Tunney, 2020, para. 3). This past April, the Ontario government partnered with Apple and Rogers to provide 21,000 iPads to underserved students in the province, to enable them to participate in online learning (O’Rourke, 2020). On May 3, 2020, Minister Maryam Monsef, a spokesperson for Rural Economic Development, said the Liberal government “is consulting with telecommunication providers, rural municipalities and others about how best to move up plans to improve access to high-speed Internet in rural and remote communities” (Tunney, 2020, para. 2). There are numerous challenges to the sustainability of these recent initiatives that affect the digital divide: Canada’s national digital strategy aimed at improving access to rural community has goals set for 2025-2030 (arguably not the immediate future), we witnessed financial cutbacks in education prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there will be fiscal austerity measures that will be a part of our recovery from this international crisis (Cochrane, 2020; Clement et al., 2012; TopClass Podcast, 2020).

The implications and potential for policy changes in Canada with regards to access to educational technology for all students post-COVID-19 are at this point unknown. Online learning has quickly become “the necessary new-norm,” and even when a vaccine is made available and we “return to normal,” predictions forecast hybrid learning overtaking face-to-face learning (Bates, 2020). Canada’s Digital Charter in Action: A Plan by Canadians, for Canadians states:

Connect to Innovate program is investing CAD$500M in rural and remote communities across Canada, helping Canadians to more fully participate in, and benefit from, the digital economy. This program is helping to build high-capacity backbone into more than 900 rural and remote communities, including 190 Indigenous communities. Connecting Canadians will continue to be a priority, and to achieve this, Budget 2019 announced a coordinated plan that would deliver CAD$5B to CAD$6B in new investments towards building a connected Canada – with a national target of having 100% of Canadian homes and businesses connected to the Internet with speeds of 50/10 Mbps by 2030. (p. 16)

This cannot happen soon enough as current Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (2019) data suggests that 85.7% of Canada’s urban population have broadband Internet access that is the recommended 50/10 Mbps, with unlimited access, while only 40.3% of rural communities have broadband at 50/10 Mbps (para. 1).

In Canada’s Digital Charter in Action, the government has identified four areas that need to be addressed: people and skills, digital technology, infrastructure, and accessibility (Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada, 2019, p. 16). In terms of infrastructure and accessibility, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for 1:1 (one student per one laptop or tablet) access to devices and Internet connectivity to facilitate online learning. The Ontario government has formed partnerships over the last three months to deliver 1:1 access to students across the province, an initiative that may be argued costly to maintain (O’Rourke, 2020). Nonetheless, access to technology is only a part of the digital divide: content and digital literacy skills are the balance, and they also demand social and political investments (Hargittai & Walejko, 2008; Jenkins, 2009). The COVID-19 pandemic has created some changes to the technical dimensions of the digital divide in Canada, although the other two-thirds of the divide, content and digital literacy skills are a more significant societal undertaking (Selwyn, 2010; Watters, 2014; Watters, 2015). Settler colonialism still broadly needs to be dismantled in terms of the content offered through Canadian educational institutions, as well as Western models of teaching and the determination of the digital skills to accompany culturally specific content. Canada’s Digital Charter in Action, with its fourfold focus on people and skills, digital technology, infrastructure, and accessibility, is great in theory, but needs to be more aggressively implemented to meet ever-increasing interests and needs for online learning (Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada, 2019)

CONCLUSION

“The COVID-19 Crisis has amplified all of the socio-economic issues that manifest themselves in the digital divide, along with many other areas of inequity, in Canada” (McCarthy, 2020b). It remains to be seen if this national and global crisis will lessen barriers to online learning and narrow the digital divide in Canada in the future. I would like to be in a better position to advocate for a future that sees a diminished digital divide in Canada, and online learning that meets redistributive, recognitive, and representational justice initiatives that are long overdue (Lambert, 2018; Selwyn, 2010; Watters, 2015). “If it were possible to define generally the mission of education, it could be said that its fundamental purpose is to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, [creative,] and economic life” (New London Group, 2000, in Jenkins, 2009, p. 1). Not all K-12 students in Canada are currently benefiting from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, creative, and economic life today—or tomorrow.

Watters (2020) recently mused on her blog that it feels wrong to organize and be hopeful about the future of education when we are in the midst of grieving for the tragedies and loss that surround the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, organize and hope we must, that the opportunities to permanently alter online learning and the digital divide for K-12 students in Canada are not lost. In the course of researching and writing this article, the following five different issues surfaced as critical for Canada to address to overcome the existing digital divide that poses numerous barriers to online learning

  • access to Internet and broadband speeds of 50/10 Mbps;
  • access to devices (redistributive justice);
  • content divide (recognitive and representational justice);
  • digital literacy skills;
  • more aggressive federal and provincial digital strategies and policies.

“The many changes that we have so long talked about in education have arrived–oblivious to resistance and equity issues” (McCarthy, 2020c). In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, online learning has been hyper-accelerated (Bates, 2020; Selwyn, 2020; Silcoff, 2020) and the digital divide has been magnified: both of these factors have also created accelerated responses and invaluable opportunities to address inequity in K-12 education and the digital divide in Canada. When technological infrastructure meets locally grown social infrastructure, Canada will be the leader it is capable of being in K-12 education

 

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