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Introduction

The Digital Divide Practitioner Tool addresses a new need, one that did not previously exist in Alberta’s Community Adult Learning Program (CALP) system: How can we offer effective adult foundational learning through online delivery?

While there is no simple answer to this question, this resource contains principles and wise strategies, grounded in the experience of practitioners in the field. It is meant to guide your thinking and practice as you transition into an online space with adult foundational learners.

All the strategies and quotations in this tool have been captured from surveys and workshops conducted with practitioners in Alberta’s adult foundational learning community.

Defining our terms

When we use the terms “practitioners” and “volunteer tutors”, here is what we mean:

  • Practitioners are facilitators, instructors, staff, and teachers who are responsible for facilitating learning in the non-formal adult learning space.
  • Volunteer tutors are people who work directly with learners, with the guidance of practitioners, to augment the non-formal learning space.

When we use the terms learners or adult foundational learners, we are referring to the adults who choose to return to non-formal foundational learning in community-based programs. You will see that most often we use the term learners but at times we have used the term participants.

What is the digital divide?

The term “digital divide”

We use the term “digital divide” to refer to the inequalities that exist between those who have access to digital technology and the skills and confidence to use it, and those who do not.

During the COVID-19 global pandemic, the issue of the digital divide highlighted and exacerbated already existing issues of gross, systemic inequalities in economic, social, and educational opportunity for marginalized populations.

Barriers

When the pandemic suddenly shifted adult foundational learning away from in-person learning to online learning, three main barriers were revealed:

  • Lack of access to affordable, reliable, broadband internet services
  • Lack of reliable access to a digital device suitable for learning (e.g., tablets, laptops, desktop computers)
  • Lack of digital skills and confidence to engage in online, remote, or blended learning

In our Digital Divide Project, we heard overwhelming evidence from practitioners that these three main barriers greatly impacted learners – and practitioners and volunteer tutors – in the adult foundational learning community.

Practitioners identified other barriers for learners, including financial instability, lack of childcare, increased responsibilities at home due to homeschooling, and other pandemic stresses. As well, practitioners identified their own lack of prior experience with online programming as a barrier.

These results reinforce what we found across the literature from other researchers in different jurisdictions. These barriers negatively impact adults’ ability to access online learning. Significantly, they also impact adults’ capacity to access other essential resources and support, and their ability to participate fully in the economic recovery that will follow the pandemic. This compounding effect illustrates how digital inequity impacts multiple aspects of life, learning, and work.

Learning in a changing landscape

The adult foundational learning community made great efforts to adjust programming in order to continue offering relevant learning opportunities throughout the pandemic, as in-person gathering was restricted. We responded to learner needs as the ground shifted beneath our feet.

When circumstances resolve, does the digital divide still matter?

Yes! It still matters and we need to address it. Digital skills, digital access, and digital learning are all essential in our post-pandemic world.

So, a new learning landscape has emerged, and practitioners have a wealth of information and insight to share about:

  • how to address adult foundational learners’ needs in online program delivery
  • how to make teaching and learning sustainable in the new environment
  • and how to continue to offer the responsive, learner-centred programming that CALPs are known for.

This Digital Divide Practitioner Tool shares this collected wisdom to advance effective online program delivery in the adult foundational learning field in Alberta.