This report looks at the extent to which Web 2.0 (interactive and social media tools) are being used in the Community Work Sector in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to advance, facilitate, and support non-profit and community services work. It examines Community Work Sector student digital capabilities and training. It is a useful, specific exploration of digital fluency skills, knowledge, and attitudes/values frontline community and social service workers should aspire to, within a social justice lens. A very relevant Canadian exploration for our sector to reflect on to ensure that digital fluency competency efforts are aligned with digital inclusion, anti-oppression, and social justice efforts in our sector.
The authors argue that a critical digital pedagogy approach should be taken to ensure that future practitioners will develop digital fluency skills, thereby equipping themselves to better respond and adapt to technological changes: "A critical approach to online teaching implicitly aligns with community work as it is rooted in anti-oppressive practice, respect for human rights and social justice. So, while skill development - both soft skills like judgement and hard skills like live-tweeting a community meeting - are key components of equipping learners for digital transformations, just as important is development of good critical digital media fluency as foundational to student curriculum."
Report overview and findings
Critical Digital Fluency in the Community Work Sector: Identifying Gaps and Addressing Needs is a qualitative research report that interrogates the extent to which Web 2.0 (interactive and social media
tools) are being used in the Community Work Sector in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to advance, facilitate, and support non-profit and community services work. Simultaneously, the project examines students’ digital capabilities and training; listening carefully to their recommendations.
The authors conducted semi-structured, one-on-one interviews with 21 agency representatives across eleven community work sector organizations. One hundred and four students offered input through a focus group and two online surveys. They also mapped twenty non-profit job postings requiring digital skills.
The study revealed the following findings across several themes:
Critical digital fluency is a must – Through the course of this research project it has become clear that just as digital technology is constantly advancing and transforming, so too digital skills need to provide both a solid footing in some key, core skills and also teach a level of adaptability and innovative responsiveness to rapid changes and platform development. Given recent developments concerning the abuse and misuse of social media, it is vital to embrace a holistic approach to curriculum development in which students gain a critical digital fluency enabling them to engage in critical analysis as they adapt and respond to the latest technological developments.
Learners feel unprepared – The research indicates that students recognize the importance of social media and other digitally-based skills. They also recognize that they are not receiving the training that they need.
Insufficient curriculum focus - Students and agency representatives both point to the gap in curriculum in developing critical digital fluency skills that ultimately would help students be job-ready in the 21st century and help agencies meet currently under-resourced needs. Overwhelmingly both participant groups recognized the importance of core program curriculum in critical digital fluency.
Agencies use social media - Certain assumptions surround non-profits and their use of social media and digital technologies. The findings in this research demonstrate that agencies use social media for much more than creating an ‘online profile on facebook.’ Either through intentional integration or the organic process of responding to clients’ needs, agencies are using these tools not just for back-end work (public profile, fundraising, networking) but for front-end frontline work. This is an area that needs much more intentional thought.
Agencies need support - Agency precarity has only increased in recent years, amplifying funding shortfalls and increasing employee workloads. Research findings demonstrate that this situation manifests itself in several ways when it comes to constraining agency digital fluency. Social media work is often hidden or tacked on to existing work rendering it ‘hidden labour’, there is a lack of funds (core funding) geared to agencies for training, tools, and consistency and a general lack of organizational policies to help workers put parameters on their work, ensure agency consistency across platforms and help guide ethical considerations when working with vulnerable populations. Together, these unique considerations for increasing digital fluency in the non-profit sector need to be visibilized and addressed.
Institutional Support - While originally not part of the research design, a clear role for institutional (GBC) support for community partners became evident through the data analysis. Agencies need support and the CW Program is well-placed to not only ensure students gain the skills they need but also to create partnerships with the non-profit sector and offer professional development opportunities to ensure current agency staff are well-equipped to respond to the technological era.
The authors make recommendations across four main areas:
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