Making the case for digital literacy

On July 7th 2010 Media Awareness Network submitted its discussion paper, Digital Literacy in Canada: From Inclusion to Transformation, to the federal government's Digital Economy Consultation process. This paper situates digital literacy skills development for all Canadians as the cornerstone of any national plan for the digital economy and calls on the federal government to take a leadership role in supporting solutions that will create citizens who know how to use digital technologies to their fullest and who can think critically about digital content.

The government's consultation process has been ongoing since May, but this paper has been in the works here for over a year. Why? Because although there's been a lot of high-level government-led discussion on what Canada should do to remain competitive in a digital world, little has been said up to now about the skills needed by ordinary Canadians – of all ages – to prepare them for working, learning and living in this promising and challenging digital world. Media Awareness Network, along with stakeholders from both the formal and informal education sectors, technology industries, cultural communities and libraries, believes that a much broader approach is needed to cultivate a digitally literate population which in turn will fuel the digital economy.

Luckily for Canada, we have the advantage of being able to build on the considerable research and precedent that has already been established in government initiatives for the digital economy in countries like the UK (Digital Britain), New Zealand (Digital Strategy 2.0), Australia (Future Directions) and the United States (National Broadband Plan: Connecting America). Each has positioned digital literacy as a crucial component for participation, inclusion and innovation in a knowledge economy; each recognizes the acquisition of digital literacy as an “essential life skill” which represents a process of life-long learning that incorporates K-12 and post-secondary education, vocational training, and public awareness.

In its discussion paper, MNet connects Canada's declining performance in the digital economy with a failure to develop a national strategy that balances investments in technology and infrastructure with investments in skills and knowledge. Infrastructure is not enough: Canadians need to know how to use ICTs to improve the quality of their lives, increase productivity throughout the private and public sectors, develop innovative products and services, and create new media and digital content: but they cannot do this alone. In its submission, MNet argues that maximizing the potential of a digital Canada demands a comprehensive national plan to ensure citizens have the resources to learn how to access, use, understand and create with digital technology. A national “digital literacy strategy” should not only include job training and skills development, but also support throughout K-12 and post-secondary educational systems and public awareness, so citizens can continue to acquire digital literacy skills throughout their life-spans.

It's clear that being literate in a digital world entails much more than technological proficiency. No single document can encapsulate the many different aspects of information, ICT, media, and critical literacies that being digitally literate entails – not to mention the wide variety of ethical, social, and reflective practices that are embedded in work, learning, leisure, and daily life. But such a document can certainly establish guidelines and foundational standards that can then be built upon move users beyond participation in the digital economy towards the more transformative areas of innovation, constructive social action, and critical and creative thinking.

The ultimate goal of this submission is to act as a catalyst for the creation of a national strategy for digital literacy that builds on the knowledge, expertise and perspectives of key stakeholders in order to accurately reflect and meet the needs of Canadians. To this end, the discussion paper makes the following recommendations:

1. Immediately create a digital literacy taskforce comprising key stakeholders at all levels of government (both federal and provincial), as well as those representing business and communities across Canada, to develop a cross-jurisdictional blueprint for a National Digital Literacy Strategy.

2. Support the implementation of a national study of students and teachers, to determine, from each of their perspectives, the digital skills that are needed by Canadian children and youth.

3. Within one year host a Digital Literacy Stakeholder Conference that brings together a broader group of stakeholders from all four spheres of implementation to develop and launch a coordinated national strategy focused on strengthening digital literacy in Canada as a fundamental cornerstone of the digital economy strategy and to highlight government digital literacy initiatives.

Canada has clearly recognized the importance of ICTs – as is evident by the significant investments in broadband and wireless network infrastructure that has been made over the past decade. But building networks is not enough. In order to adapt to the challenge of balancing our old economic and educational systems with the new networked, mediated ways of doing business and educating our citizens, the issue for Canadians is no longer if we use digital technology but how well we use it.

We hope that by making the case for digital literacy as part of the government's consultation process, we can work together to ensure that all Canadians can thrive in a digital Canada and a digital world.

To download the full version of Digital Literacy in Canada: From Inclusion to Transformation, visit