Canada is facing a gaping digital divide, with large swaths of the adult population scoring at both the highest and lowest levels on an international test of computer problem-solving skills.
The survey found that Canada had the second-highest proportion of adults who excelled on a test that measured participants' abilities to complete multi-step tasks using computers. At the same time, the country lagged near the bottom of the pack for the proportion of respondents who did poorly on the assessment.
The landmark global study, by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, measured adult literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving skills in 22 countries.
"These fundamental [skills] have enormous predictive power in the labour market," said Arthur Sweetman, an economics professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. "How educated, how able the population is really has enormous effects, not only for the individuals themselves but for the entire economy."
While Canada's average literacy performance was on par with the OECD average, the study found that the country also has a wide literacy gap. Fourteen per cent of respondents scored at the test's top two levels, better than the OECD average of 12 per cent. But 17 per cent did very poorly, compared with 15 per cent in other countries.
Canadian immigrants scored higher than the OECD average on literacy, though they were outscored by Canadian-born respondents.
On numeracy, Canadian adults, on average, lag behind the OECD. And more Canadians did poorly on the numeracy test, with 23 per cent scoring at Level 1 or below compared with the OECD average of 19 per cent.
"It tells us we've got some work to do, particularly in the areas of numeracy, and we always want to do better in literacy as well. But we're competitive," said Jeff Johnson, Alberta's Education Minister and chair of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.
For digital problem-solving skills, the OECD measured study participants' ability to access and use information through computers. For example, people were asked to conduct a job search on a simulated web browser and bookmark websites that did not require registration or charge fees.
On this measure, 37 per cent of Canadians scored at the top two levels of the scale, which exceeded the OECD average of 34 per cent. As well, 81 per cent of respondents were able to able to complete the assessment on a computer, higher than the average of 74 per cent.
However, 15 per cent of Canadian respondents scored at the first level or below, which was three percentage points worse than the OECD average. The lower scores were largely among seniors, people living in remote areas, those who didn't finish high school as well as some immigrants and native Canadians, Mr. Johnson said.
"It's something I think is worth noting but I don't think it's something that is terribly surprising and those groups are fairly easily identifiable and we can work on that," he said.
Mr. Johnson said provinces are working to narrow the digital divide in their own ways. He noted that Alberta is emphasizing better integrating technology into classrooms.
Statistics Canada researchers surveyed 27,000 adults aged 16-65 between November, 2011, and June, 2012. The international survey, officially called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, is based on responses from 166,000 adults in 22 countries.