What is digital literacy and why is it important for Canadian youth?


Canadian Science Policy Centre

By Jennifer Flanagan, CEO of Actua

Youth in Canada are incredibly enthusiastic when it comes to using new technology. Their day-to-day engagement seems natural and effortless, leading many to believe that youth are experts in all things digital; that they embody the term “digital literacy.”

I want to take a step back and deconstruct the notion that digital literacy is determined by youth’s proficiency with technology. Today, youth engagement with digital tools most often includes texting, video-streaming, and engaging on social media. While some are engaging in coding/HTML programs outside of school, the majority do not have access to formal guidance on how to use computer software and technology to create and problem solve. They are not necessarily digitally literate.

Being digitally literate goes beyond just using and consuming technology – it is a much broader skill set. It is using technology but also having an understanding of how that technology works. At Actua we believe it even goes a step beyond that to having the skills to produce new technology. What that looks like is youth not only being expert users of smartphones, but also understanding their inner workings and having the skills to develop new technology to meet their unique needs.

Our careers, our ability to connect with others, and generally participate in civic life is very much shaped by our literacy. Digital literacy is no different, especially in a world that is increasingly more digital and ever more dependent on computers to help us expedite, enhance, make safer, more affordable everyday tasks.

Currently, neither the Ontario or federal government have developed a comprehensive strategy to help support the development of youth digital literacy in Canada, and therein lies a huge opportunity. With the arrival of a new federal government comes the chance for the new Minister in charge of innovation, science and economic development to review the former Minister of Industry’s Digital 150 strategy, and shift the youth focus from improving hardware accessibility in schools, to providing more opportunities for youth to learn and apply digital skills.

This past year, Actua, with significant support from Google Canada, and the delivery power of its network of 33 university and college based members, have rolled out a program called Codemakers – engaging over 35,000 youth in the first year alone. Codemakers engages youth in digital skill building experiences that will move them from being passive consumers of technology to being future producers and innovators of technology. Between 2015 and 2017, Codemakers will engage over 100,000 youth including girls, Indigenous youth, Northern youth, and those facing socioeconomic challenges. We will also be working with parents and teachers to increase their capacity and resources to support their children’s digital literacy development.

The time to act is now. We must recognize that digital literacy not only includes being a proficient user of technology but also having an understanding of how it works and skills to create new technology. With an accurate understanding of what digital literacy is, and why it matters, we as a country can then collectively support greater accessibility to computer science and digital experiences.