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The Globe and Mail

The risk of building infrastructure without building digital literacy

Mike Colledge is president of Ipsos Public Affairs Canada. Michael Haight is a PhD candidate in sociology at The University of Western Ontario whose work focuses on the second digital divide, Internet utilization, digital policy, technology engagement and social inequality.

A Canadian digital strategy has been slow in coming. The 2016 budget saw a commitment of $500-million over a five-year period to support Canada's priority to extend and enhance broadband access in rural and remote areas. As Canada's new innovation agenda is consulting Canadians on how Canada can compete in the digital world, we have the opportunity to inform and build a comprehensive digital strategy that simultaneously addresses the issue of access as well as a crucial supply-side issue – namely, the issue of a growing gap in digital adoption.

For information and communications technology investments to be sustainable and beneficial, it's critical that Canada develop a more comprehensive strategy that addresses the growing digital adoption gap through complementary investments in education and digital literacy. It's important to highlight that even as most Canadians today have access to the Internet, investments in online service, whether public or private, are not necessarily reaching everyone.

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Globally, we're ranked second for hours spent online in a month and first for number of web pages viewed in a month, according to the Boston Consulting Group. And Ipsos's research series on Internet subscription and usage, Participation In The Digital Economy (1.0 and 2.0), conducted in late 2015 and early 2016, finds that nine out of 10 Canadians have a home Internet subscription, and six in 10 have an unlimited plan. Each year, more and more Canadians are accessing the Internet; however, our research also shows that many of us are not taking full advantage of the digital economy.

Using an index of engagement in online activities as an indicator of those who are taking advantage of the digital economy, we find a growing gap in digital participation. With most "high" and "very high" users of the Internet, access to entertainment and social media are the main incentives to get online. But for Canadians with "low," "very low" or "moderate" online participation, quick and convenient access to information is a bigger motivator, and most respondents strongly agree that the Internet makes things easier.

Some may simply not be aware of all the Internet has to offer or don't see the relevance of doing so. Our research indicates that less than 20 per cent of Canadians who use the Internet use it consistently to interact with government websites or health-care professionals, search for employment, or for distance education; and barely half did so at least "sometimes."

However, 54 per cent believe they are already taking full advantage of the Internet. In addition, of those who don't think they are taking full advantage of the Internet, 17 per cent indicate the primary barrier is "motivation" (such as "relevance") and 16 per cent say "capability" (such as lack of knowledge or skills on how to use the Internet), with only 12 per cent mentioning "opportunity," such as lack of access.

While we might naturally assume that this is simply a matter of socioeconomic status, age, or urban or rural residence, Ipsos's research shows these are not the primary factors in determining whether or not someone accesses or fully uses the Internet. Rather, it is whether or not people know what they can access through the Internet and if they know how to access it.

The risk with building infrastructure without simultaneously building digital literacy is that people who don't have the capability or motivation to participate and take advantage of the digital economy may be left behind. Digital literacy or the lack thereof has the potential to create a new type of inequality – between the "knowers" and "know-nots" of how to be full participants in the digital world.

We find that "low" and "very low" adopters of the digital economy are above average in both their tendency to access services over the phone that are available online (either out of habit or to know they're doing it correctly), and in their agreement that there are things they would like to do online but don't know how. Less than half of "very low" adopters feel they have the capability to access government services online. If Canada's digital policy does not address those who lack the knowledge, skills or motivation, the "know-nots" may miss out on the benefits that come with the digital society.

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If we want to get more Canadians engaged in the digital economy, we will need a strategy that both ensures accessibility through infrastructure and advances Canadians' knowledge of how to use information and communications technology to be able to fully access and consume digital goods and services from employment opportunities and distance education to online government and health services such as lab results.

As Canada approaches its 150th birthday, we need to make sure that all Canadians can access and participate in the many benefits the Internet offers.

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