Blog Post

Bridging Digital inclusion - Josoor conference - presentation

By: Marco Campana
May 22, 2024

I originally presented this at the Arab Community Centre of Toronto's Josoor Project Conference in March 2024: "Digital Inclusion: From Research to Application - Opportunities, Challenges and Strategies." You can view the video below as well as read my full remarks in text.

I’m going to speak to you about the importance of digital inclusion, and what we need to do to get there in our sector.

Let’s start with the problem we need to solve - what happens if we don’t work towards digital inclusion? What does that mean for Newcomers?

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.

The digital divide for Newcomers includes limited or shared access to digital devices and platforms, but can also be more complex 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.

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?

  • Since the pandemic 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 
  • You cannot solve this problem alone.

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.

If Digital Exclusion is the problem, what is 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).  A definition I find useful: “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, high speed, reliable 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 been highlighted during our work on digital transformation. As I mentioned it is not separate from other challenges of equity & inclusion and must be seen in that broader context.

To solve the problem of digital inequality   we need to start with our organizations, and then I’ll discuss the staff perspective. 

(this model is adapted from the NetHope Digital Nonprofit Ability Assessment)

I want to introduce the idea of the digital settlement agency. Made up of many things, it must ultimately be centered on Newcomers as well as our sector values of access, anti-oppression, equity and inclusion. 

At the core, at the centre, 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 centre, 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, but don’t assume a lack of knowledge
  • 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. 

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

Which means we have some work to do.

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 customized. It means both in-person and digital/remote services, sometimes with the same client. 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, intentional planning
  • New approaches to service design
  • Shifts in how we work and our skills

What does that look like at the individual level? 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 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.

Sounds a lot like Settlement work, right?

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 recent report on Digital Navigators in the United States 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. They 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. Hopefully your organization applied for this role or one like it in the Digital Support Services stream in the recent IRCC Call for Proposals.

Let’s broaden back out a bit looking at some practical steps you can take to make sure your services are digitally inclusive by being intentional.

(this approach is adapted from the TIES Toolkit for Hybrid Instruction for Adult Literacy Learners)

1. Assess: Is Your Client Ready For Hybrid Services? Are You? 

2. Access: Getting Into The Hybrid Service

3. Adapt: Resources And Tools For The Hybrid Service

4. Serve: Managing The Hybrid Service And Client Interactions 

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? 
  • How do they want to (or what tool do they want to use to) communicate with us? Here we would get into things like SMS/texting, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, etc.

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. 

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% use their phone add their primary communication device, 80% want SMS/Text updates instead of email, 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 need to learn in order to at least access your services. 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.

You don’t have to start from scratch. 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.

What else can you do? Digital Literacy support options include:

  • Work in partnership with local organizations to create a Digital Divide Inventory outlining programs where community members can access low and no cost devices and internet connections. 
  • 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

Sharing what you create is important too! We need to cultivate a culture of collaboration across the sector, where useful materials that have been funded and created are shared and made accessible to all.

Working towards digital inclusion means building inclusive practices and building anti-racism, anti-oppression, diversity, equity, and inclusion into our service design, including digital. Building digital inclusion into our programming means creating space to collaborate, come together, co-design, share resources and tools with staff and Newcomers. It means understanding Newcomer as well as service provider perspectives, bringing them all into the conversation. 

Someone wrote 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, for the same reason. We must centre staff and Newcomers in all technology-related planning and decision-making.

This can feel overwhelming. So I want to leave you with some tangible next steps to work on for the rest of this year.

(these priorities are adapted from the Devon County Council Digital and Technology Strategy 2021 - 2024)

By the end of 2024, you should:

  • be confident in your digital skills and know how to access additional support.
  • be aware of user centred service design and know how to access and be supported in identifying opportunities for innovation
  • be aware of the importance of data and intelligence and be able to access the information you need to measure performance, predict and anticipate future demand and make well-informed decisions. This might sound the most intimidating, but it really means developing deep knowledge of clients and communities, which is factored in service and program design and delivery. “To ensure we design and deliver the right digital and technology services, we will design our services around the needs of the people using them and put digital at the heart.”
  • receive data protection and cyber security training
  • embrace your role as a Digital Navigator, know where to access digital literacy information for your clients and share what you create with the sector

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, choice, and access.

Thank you.

You can view the slide presentation (with clickable links on various resources) here:

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