Blog Post

Valuing equity first - digital exclusion, inclusion, and literacy

By: Marco Campana
June 16, 2022

Yesterday I co-presented with Jennifer Chan from the Department of Imaginary Affairs at the The Regional Diversity Roundtable's conference Centering Diversity for Workplace Equity: Imagining Collective Futures.

Our focus was on valuing and centering equity in digital transformation. We had a rich, nuanced, and interesting discussion with participants and I wanted to share my part of the presentation here.

I'll have a video of our entire presentationto add soon, but for now wanted to share my notes and slides.

text explaining how the digital divide is linked to inequality

What some people knew before the pandemic, but now we all know, is that there is a digital divide among newcomers. And it is nuanced. In a Fall 2020 survey of service provider organizations IRCC asked which client groups had barriers to accessing digital services. 19% of seniors, 14% of women, 14% of those in rural/remote areas, 10% of Government Assisted Refugees, 9% of racialized minorities had challenges.

At the same time, many newcomers adjusted to and even preferred digital/remote services. We also knew, but now we all know, our sector has a digital divide. And over this time, we’ve become familiar with new ideas of digital equity, and digital inclusion, which build on and add to our anti-oppression work focused on building equity and inclusion for newcomers. We also know that there is no right way to deliver digital or remote services.

And that’s both great and frustrating.

Digital Exclusion refers to those that lack access to technology and foundational digital skills training, locking many people out of opportunities, with considerable costs to them and our wider society.

Digital Divide refers to the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have devices and online access and those who do not, or don’t know how to use them.

Digital literacy and critical thinking skills are necessary to participate effectively in today’s world.

One definition of digital literacy is “the skills associated with using technology to enable users to find, evaluate, organize, create, and communicate information; and developing digital citizenship and the responsible use of technology.” Reading books online or using your phone to post on Facebook or send a text, is not what we’re focused on when we mean digital literacy. The goal is higher. Like settlement, it’s full participation and inclusion in society.

So where are we at now?

  • We have come to a better understanding of the multi-dimensions of digital inequality
  • Digital inclusion needs to consider different social and situational contexts 
  • Digital inequality also happens to settlement workers themselves
  • You cannot do this alone.

If Digital Exclusion is the problem, what is Digital Inclusion?

slide showing the components of digital inclusion

Digital Inclusion refers to the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).  “Digital Inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional and structural barriers to access and use technology” (National Digital Inclusion Alliance)

Key elements of Digital Inclusion:

  • affordable, robust broadband internet service
  • internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user
  • access to digital literacy training and high quality technical support
  • applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration.
  • Capacity of the non-profit service sector to provide supports and digital services

It’s a big topic, one that is important to our sector. Digital Inclusion is something that has really been highlighted in the past almost 2 years during our work on digital transformation. Inclusion and equity have become important challenges. These are not separate from other challenges of equity & inclusion and must be seen in that broader context.

Not surprisingly, digital equity is an issue for those dealing with other equity challenges. And in our work, these are the kinds of things that have come up. It's a complex social challenge. And it requires well planned interventions in order to deal with. 

The digital divide for Newcomers includes limited access to digital devices and platforms, but is compounded by low literacy in English or in their own languages, a disconnect between devices Newcomers predominantly use and how information is shared, and digital equity also intersects with other equity and social justice issues. These are digital inclusion issues that are a bit below the surface, require us to spend time discovering, but are as equally important to address as devices and internet connections.

We've come to a better understanding of what multi dimensional digital inequality is, as well as the fact that we cannot do this alone, as individual agencies. There are systemic issues that exist in our sector, not just with clients, but also within our organizations and for settlement workers. Building inclusion and equity has always required system and organizational change. This is no different when it comes to technology. In most cases, our conversation shouldn't actually start with technology tools, but how technology might help address and create inclusion and equity.

There are models that can help us along. 

Image of the virtual care equity matrix pyramid of key equity issues

I like the approach taken by The Virtual Care Equity Matrix. Created by the Ontario Mental Health and Addictions Virtual Care Collaborative, the Matrix outlines key equity issues that must be addressed in the delivery of virtual care. Virtual care is a health sector term, but I think it is a fit for any human service. It highlights the conditions necessary for everyone to access high quality, timely, equitable, and person-centred virtual care.

The model provides a foundation building up to the actual providing of virtual care. We’re calling it hybrid service delivery in our sector right now, but the principles and building blocks are the same. 

Connectivity and Equipment is at the base of the pyramid. Whether communities and individuals have access to a telephone and/or to the internet and device to connect to it is the first condition that must be met to access virtual care. Ideally they will have access to devices they can use privately, which are not shared.

Platforms and Security must be affordable, accessible, and acceptable to Newcomers and practitioners. They must meet agencies’, practitioners’ and Newcomers’ diverse financial, digital literacy, language literacy, cultural, and ability circumstances. That means at times incorporating tools Newcomers are familiar with, and other times onboarding and supporting them to use more secure and comprehensive service tools.

Relationships and Interventions are key to supporting the accessibility and acceptability of virtual care. Relationships built between providers and other staff at an agency and Newcomers receiving services help to ensure service users have what they need (equipment, digital literacy, translation services etc.) to be able to access online or hybrid services. Interventions must be adapted to fit the service provided, as well as the service user’s cultural and social context.

Training and Policy helps to support everything else. Getting this right ensures our policies support equitable, confidential, Newcomer-centred access to virtual care, and that you have the skills needed to deliver such care.

So, in all of this, focusing on the individual, what is your role?

At our core we’ve always worked in, but now we are formally moving towards a hybrid or blended service model. This hybrid or blended service model is made up of in-person as well as online or remote service delivery, whether in real time or not. This means really no wrong approach or no wrong door for clients. An accessible and equitable model that's flexible and innovative. It means both in-person and digital/remote services, sometimes with the same client. But in some cases you may have fully in-person clients, in others fully virtual. In reality, this isn’t new, you’ve been providing hybrid service delivery for a long time, well before the pandemic. But we have an opportunity to formalize it now. So how do we get there?

A hybrid approach requires

  • Thoughtful planning
  • New approaches to service design
  • Shifts in how we work and our skills
Image of the role digital navigators play and ways they can support Newcomers to develop digital literacy

What does that look like at the individual level, which we’re focused on today? It means a shift in all your roles. Over and above your existing roles, potentially new roles/jobs, but also increasingly becoming part of your role - Digital Navigators

The future of the frontline worker’s job comes up a lot in this conversation, and we need to be having that conversation. A lot of it comes up as a point of anxiety. A fear of being replaced by technology. I don’t think your job is at risk. It is evolving. But you are more important than ever before. And, as we look to the future, we can and should drive the change that is happening and ensure it aligns with our sector's core values, as well as the type of work we want to be doing. In your work, you play a key role in systems navigation. Like general Settlement work, as a Digital Navigator you’re helping Newcomers navigate the digital system.

Instead of employment, health, housing, or community systems, here we’re focusing on digital literacy systems.

Digital navigators are trusted guides who assist community members in internet adoption and the use of computing devices.

Digital navigation services include ongoing assistance with accessing affordable internet access, device acquisition, technical skills, and application (app and software) support.

The Digital Navigator in our context helps provide digital literacy skills orientation or training for Newcomers. The Digital Navigator is an advocate and support person who educates and onboards Newcomers so they can make informed decisions about using technology.

This help is provided in person or over the telephone but can also include email, text/digital messaging, video chat, and other communication methods that work for the Newcomer.

Additionally, Digital Navigators play an important role finding and making referrals to programs and facilitating enrollment in digital literacy classes, workshops, upskilling opportunities, critical services, or helping people navigate community resources and services.

Digital Navigators follow up with Newcomers to track progress and to ensure goals have been met.

As I mentioned, it’s a new layer of systems navigation that we all must become more knowledgeable about. It is important that front line workers learn to be substantially knowledgeable about digital devices and platforms and prepare for digital transformation readiness.

Like the hybrid model, you were already a Digital Navigator before the pandemic. And many of you have become Digital Navigators now. Run a workshop on how to use LinkedIn for job search? Digital navigation. Support someone to download and complete a government form? Digital navigation. Over the past years has your organization provided support to Newcomers around devices, internet connections, or digital literacy training (whether you offered it or referred Newcomers to the community)? Digital navigation. Our question is whether the Digital Navigator model is something we want to formalize and integrate into our work with Newcomers.

My suggestion is yes. A report on Digital Navigators in the United States came out 2 days ago that looked at how helpful digital navigators have been. They interviewed the leaders of more than 40 digital navigator programs and conducted a nationwide survey of over 1,500 digital navigator users. Researchers found some important outcomes for digital navigator users: 

  • 66% overcame adoption barriers and have an internet connection and device
  • 86% strengthened their digital skills
  • 80% feel more confident or safer using technology

It’s a model that works. It can work for us.

At the practical level we need to start consistently asking Newcomers questions to help identify what devices Newcomers are using, how Newcomers self-assess their digital literacy, and more importantly, what they want to learn. This helps us to practically centre digital equity and inclusion in our work. Questions like:

  • What devices are they using (phone, tablet, computer)?
  • Who has access to/manages these devices in the household?
  • Who doesn't have access to a device?
  • What connectivity capacity do they have?
  • How do Newcomers self-assess their digital literacy? What can you do with technology?
  • What do Newcomers want to learn using technology/online?
  • What do Newcomers want/need to do online/using technology?

You can do this in conversation, through surveys, at intake, etc.

We will all be incorporating Newcomer digital literacy into program/organizational intake or needs assessment processes. Start by simply expanding the questions you ask about their contact information. Currently most organizations ask for phone and email. You can add 2 simple questions to help guide your planning and service design:

  • What digital devices and tools do you use to communicate, find, and share information? Here we would get into things like SMS/texting, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, etc.
  • How do you want to (or what tool do you want to use to) communicate with us? Because what they use and how they might prefer to communicate with you can be quite different. 

By collecting this information, asking these questions we learn more about Newcomers, their digital access, as well as their digital and information preferences. You may not be able to act on all of what you learn right away. But as you collect the information, you will identify trends and hard data/evidence that you can use to inform digital service design, ways of communicating, and resources to invest in. Imagine if you serve 12,000 Newcomers a year. After 3 months of collecting this info, you have 3,000 points of data that you can tell your Board, your funder, etc. - 80% of our clients want to communicate using WhatsApp, 60% Facebook Messenger, 80% want SMS/Text updates, and so on. Serving and communicating with people in the way they want to be served and communicated with is essential.

This information will also help you to create Digital Literacy Action Plans to help you understand what digital skills Newcomers want to learn. Creating a Digital Literacy Action Plan captures your Newcomer client’s digital learning goals and what they need to do to achieve them. You can use it to help figure out the Digital Literacy Supports needed to help them learn these skills.

Digital Literacy support options include:

  • Working in partnership with local organizations. For example, the Peel Poverty Reduction Committee created a Digital Divide Initiative Inventory outlining programs where community members can access low and no cost devices and internet connections. That meets your Connectivity and Equipment role. 
  • You can offer support yourself in your organization. In some cases your organization may have set up a device or hotspot lending library during the pandemic. Or offered digital literacy or onboarding orientation and training.
  • When it comes to Digital Skills, there are facilitated and self-directed online resources you can access and direct Newcomers to. There are hundreds of toolkits, guides, and video resources, including multilingual resources you can simple replicate and incorporate into your work
List of sector-specific digital literacy initiatives
  • Some existing resources, training, digital literacy materials have been specifically created by and for Immigrant and Refugee-serving organizations to use with Newcomers. This includes comprehensive Newcomer digital literacy assessments, online courses to prepare Newcomers to access online classes and services, digital literacy and online security curriculum you can bring into your programs, and more

List of a few resources:

  • ISSofBC Digital Literacy Curriculum Resource - designed to aid English language instructors and those in the Settlement field in helping newcomer clients overcome digital literacy barriers. Understand learners’ basic digital skills gaps and learning needs through our Interactive Online Activities and Assessor Rubrics designed for teachers.
  • eSkills - online courseware that will build English-language learners’ digital literacy, which will help them succeed in professional environments.
  • Norquest College’s Digital Literacy course is an example of an existing approach to teaching learners digital literacy skills to help them succeed with online courses. It is one of many examples of pre-online courses designed by colleges and other institutions that can be useful to review for the settlement sector. Norquest also has a WebSafe curriculum "to provide newcomers to Canada with knowledge about digital disinformation and to empower them to support family, friends, and community members in dealing with online scams, threats and misinformation."
  • Newcomer Introduction to Classes Online (NICO) Educational Resources from The Immigrant Education Society (TIES) "is an online course designed to help newcomers overcome barriers to online learning. It offers a flexible, self-paced curriculum that can be accessed online at any time. Upon completion of NICO, participants will possess the digital literacy skills required to undertake online language studies." Course materials are available to other SPOs to re-use, upon request.

Sharing what you create is important too! We need to cultivate a culture of collaboration, not only here in Peel, but across the sector, where useful materials that have been funded and created are shared and made accessible to all.

One step up from our individual lens today is considering how all of this impacts our organizations. 

Key characteristics of the digital settlement agency

The digital settlement agency is made up of many things, but must ultimately be centered on Newcomers as well as our sector values of access, anti-oppression, equity and inclusion. 

At the core, at the center, is Newcomer centric data, creating a seamless client settlement experience journey. When we think about people, we're talking about professional development in our context, building a competencies framework for our work, including knowledge mobilization and transfer. This is where the Digital Navigator model can come in, but also building your own digital literacy skills and competencies. When we're looking at process, we're talking about digital, and data maturity and risk frameworks. Frameworks we can not only build on but learn from, borrow, customize and implement in our sector. Your work needs to keep Newcomers and you safe and secure online. Technology, in our case, needs to be tempered with digital inclusion and equity. Centering inclusion in digital transformation is part of our work now.  This needs to align with our sector values. 

When we're thinking about readiness, this is where we're talking about those baselines in hybrid service delivery, where we have a common minimum standard or floor of infrastructure and competencies that no agency and no individual should fall below. We can certainly exceed those baselines, and should strive to, but at their core, we all should have access to build those baselines. When it comes to investment, I like to use what Allen Broadbent from the Maytree foundation called the three I’s of immigrant integration: intentionality, instruments and investments. We need to be strategic, we need to be intentional about what we're doing. We need to have the right instruments, tactics, or technologies in order to address what we’re being intentional about. And we need investments in those instruments and in that strategy in order to make it happen. Data is key to all of that. In this model, I'm putting it at the center, labelled as Newcomer. It's really being Newcomer centric, fully understanding Newcomers and communities, in order to create that seamless, accessible, and equitable Newcomer settlement journey. Understanding Newcomers makes the technology and service intervention decisions much easier and more effective. They have to be part of your conversations about digital transformation.

All of this means sharing power and decision-making.

  • Include Newcomers in Implementation Processes
  • Do Not Assume Technology Expertise
  • Be transparent with Newcomers about what data is collected, how it will be used, and how long it will be kept. Use Data-Informed Decision-Making Carefully and be aware of biases in data. Make aggregate outcome and service delivery data available to Newcomers. There are excellent equity-focused data governance frameworks out there, we can use, borrow, and replicate them. As I read in a newsletter today “Measuring as an act of power is a real thing and engaging in evaluative practice can be transformational for individuals and organizations when done equitably.” She also wrote: “often when we raise the question as to whether nonprofit staff, community members and program participants are stakeholders in learning and improvement, we are met with disinterest at best, and resistance at worst.”

Which means we have some work to do.

List of what we need to do to work towards digital inclusion

Working towards digital inclusion means building inclusive practices and building anti-racism, anti-oppression, diversity, equity, and inclusion into our service design. Creating space to collaborate, come together, co-design, share resources and tools around digital inclusion. 

Some have said that no technology project team is complete without a social worker, because "Social work excels at understanding the entire system while also understanding the needs of the individual." In our sector, no technology project should be considered complete without front line workers and Newcomers present. We must centre staff and Newcomers in all technology-related planning and decision-making.

So, if you take anything away from this, it’s that we cannot do equity work without considering digital. And we must ground our digital work with an equity lens - which means anti-racist, anti-oppressive, inclusion, safety, and access.

Additional resources:

Addressing digital equity & the digital divide in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector
Addressing digital inclusion is complex. It requires recognition of the challenge and sustained effort to address it. There is no single strategy or method that could address all populations’ needs. Instead, localization and customization of different programs in Service Providing Organizations (SPOs) requires flexibility. Digital inequity is multifaceted, and intersects with culture, gender, age, class, and educational background.

Equity guide for nonprofit technology (2020)
This 2020 NTEN guide provides a set of guidelines addressing the equitable use, creation, and funding of technology in the nonprofit sector.

A Data Governance Framework for Health Data Collected from Black Communities in Ontario (2021)
This report introduces the Engagement, Governance, Access, and Protection (EGAP) Framework, developed by Black health sector leaders and health equity experts in Ontario to guide the collection, management, analysis, and use of race-based data from Black communities in ways that advance health equity.

2021 Symposium on Intercultural Digital Ethics (webinar recording)
The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy's Nov 3-4, 2021 Symposium on Intercultural Digital Ethics brought together a range of cultural, social and structural perspectives on the ethical issues relating to digital information technologies, with the aim of broadening the approach of digital and AI ethics.

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One comment on “Valuing equity first - digital exclusion, inclusion, and literacy”

  1. This is excellent, Marco and Jen! Incredibly well done-congrats! You laid out the entire path of how do we make this happen; make it real and possible to implement. But where are the pressure points? Who needs to see this? Who is your champion? I am somehow thinking about partnerships with Indigenous rural communities? E.g. CIRA grants