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Reflections on a monumental transition: What we have learned through embracing digital skills as foundational learning

Author – Monica Leong, Digital Divide Project consultant

Do you remember the monumental shift that came about with the global health pandemic in the (long ago) spring of 2020? Everything turned upside down overnight. 

A world that had long thought of digital skills, adequate hardware and reliable internet as ‘nice to have’ suddenly realized that the infrastructure, hardware, tools, and skills were essential, necessary and clearly a human right!

In our field, many adult foundational learners, practitioners, and programs were suddenly faced with a brand new learning landscape – online delivery of adult foundational programming. 

Now that we have a little distance from the panic of those early times we can reflect on what happened, how we reacted, how we persevered, and most importantly, what we have learned along the way.

I have been privileged to facilitate and witness practitioners engaging in these kinds of reflections through my work in the Digital Divide project, most recently in the Embedding Digital Skills Learning in Programming series. This blogpost, which includes quotes from our conversations with practitioners in the field, is the first of a series from the Digital Divide Project intended to share some of the biggest takeaways from those conversations.

  • “We were building the plane as we flew it.”

The transition to online delivery modes was quick and unplanned. Practitioners reacted and adapted as best as they could. 

“In the midst of (that much change all at once), all you can do is react.”

Looking back now, practitioners can see the monumental shift that occurred and the great strides they took to stay connected to learners.

“It’s really something to reflect on that transition…At first, it felt frantic, but (eventually) I noticed I could do new things and it was a real positive.” 

  • Workarounds became new practices.

Practitioners and programs found ways to work around all kinds of challenges they faced in the new learning landscape, everything from lending out devices to learning new ways of thinking about foundational learning. These new ways are becoming regular practices now. 

“For many people, practices have changed. Whether they captured it or not, it’s part of their new routines. It’s not a workaround anymore – it’s a practice.”

  • New opportunities emerged.

Programs and practitioners who were able to connect with learners online found new opportunities emerging in the new learning landscape. While there were definitely challenges with online delivery modes, programs found that some barriers, particularly around transportation, childcare, and anxiety/mental health barriers, could be reduced for many learners. 

“It just opened up everything and we were able to access people who maybe wouldn’t have come to our classes before.”

  • Digital skills work is emotional.

In an ever-changing environment of new apps and tools and updates, no one knows how to do everything. We are all learners when it comes to digital skills and tools. Practitioners have noticed that when things go wrong with technology, it can quickly get frustrating. But for the adults who come to our programs, working and struggling with digital skills often brings even stronger emotional responses that can shut down learning. 

Practitioners suggest a trauma-informed approach to digital skills work, in both online and in person delivery modes, to help learners navigate technology with a less alarmed emotional response. 

“We are the first step to build confidence.” 

Here are some examples of practices that can help: 

  • Slow down
  • Take one step at a time
  • Work on what is most relevant first
  • Have a special book or place for learners to write down steps in a process they need to remember
  • Share your own or others’ stories of similar challenges and struggles

Simple practices like these, which are similar to those used to support foundational reading and writing development, also support learners to persevere and develop their confidence in building digital skills and navigating technology. Whether they are used in person or through online delivery modes, practices like these can have big impacts on learners, and they highlight how practitioners can tune into their learners’ needs and strengths to embrace digital skills as foundational learning. 

“The struggle is the springboard (for learning)”

  • Embrace digital skills AS foundational learning.

Throughout the Digital Divide project activities, we have been reminded many times of the importance of three things:

  • access to internet-enabled devices appropriate for learning
  • access to enough reliable, affordable internet to meet your needs
  • and access to the digital skills and confidence needed to navigate it all. 

Embracing digital skills as foundational learning is a guiding principle that has emerged in our work. It recognizes the fertile learning spaces at the intersection of reading, writing, and digital skills. Adult foundational programming, whether it is delivered in person or online, has an essential role to play in building the digital skills needed by the people who come to our programs. Those skills are no longer optional; they are a critical part of the new learning landscape. 

“More than ever, the digital skills needed to communicate and to do things at home, at work, and in the community are essential for everyone. They are foundational learning skills. All of the challenges and hiccups we encounter as we onboard learners or try new things online, and all the skills needed to get past those challenges, are not detracting from foundational learning – they ARE foundational learning.” 

(From: Guiding Principles – Calgary Learns)

In our next blog post, we’ll share reflections on digital skills assessment and its role in adult foundational programming. Thank you to the participants in the Embedding Digital Skills Learning in Programming series and the Digital Divide Project from Calgary Learns. Visit our website for more resources.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash


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