Who are we forgetting?

An international team of researchers plans to meet with marginalized Canadians to find solutions to the “”digital divide”” between those with access to and understanding of technology, and those without.

The study, titled “Teaching and Learning Technology: Enhancing Equity for Canadian

Youth”, is centred around improving and understanding technological conditions on an educational level – both within the classroom and in teacher training environments. It will focus on the role of technology within minority communities in Nova Scotia and Nunavut.

The research group has received a grant of approximately $800,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) towards its study. The grant will cover a three-year period during which Acadia University Professor Dianne Looker and her colleagues will conduct surveys, interviews, and focus groups within target communities such as African-Canadians in Nova Scotia and First Nations people living in Nunavut.

Looker said those communities were of particular interest to the study because statistical information about them is lacking.

“There is very little literature,” said Dr. Looker. “The information we have from Stats Canada doesn’t include First Nations people on reserves or in the North, and we don’t have information on African-Canadians because the large scale Stats Canada data sets either omit those individuals or don’t include them in large enough numbers to analyse.”

Looker said that beyond simply looking at access to technology, her study would address how technology is received in the communities on more social and practical levels.

“The gaps that we traditionally have looked at are gaps in access, whether people can physically have access to a computer either in their home or in some community place. Those gaps have been closed, but some of the gaps that we know less about are gaps based on attitudes, gaps based on interest, and gaps based on feelings of competence. We’ll be looking at those in a lot more detail,” said Looker.

SSHRC felt the project fit perfectly with its Initiative on the New Economy (INE), which has also funded research on ageism in IT and globalization in the banking sector.

“The INE was set up to look at issues around technology and its impact on education, for instance, economic impact, impact on business and so on. So it’s really looking at the human side of technology,” said Dominique LaCasse, director of public affairs for SSHRC.

“We’re at a point in technology where the hardware has been solved, the software has been solved, and now it’s the social impact – it’s an area of study that’s been neglected,” explained LaCasse. “We’re finally now, with programs like INE, looking at technology’s impact in real social science ways. Not just like, ‘Is this computer easier to use?’ and ergonomics and things like that, but, ‘How does it impact young people’s educations and opportunites for careers if they don’t have equitable access to technology at critical developmental stages?’”

Dr. Blye Frank of the Faculy of Medicine at Dalhousie University is one of Looker’s four primary collaborators on the project. Blye, who specializes in medical education, says that the key issues centre around technological literacy as key to a level educational playing field.

“Technology of course is the new literacy, and historically with members of marginalized groups, there’s a tie to issues of what we’ve historically called ‘illiteracy’. And so if we’re going to have a literate population, including within medical education, then we need to look at issues of technology and education,” said Frank, who hopes the study’s findings “would then influence things like curriculum, pedagogy, and policies.”

Looker feels the study’s focus on geographically and culturally disparate groups such as the Miq’kmaq, African-Nova Scotians and the Inuit in Nunavut will produce a valuable comparative framework for developing best practices.

“One of the key reasons is we’re interested in different culture groups,” said Looker. “The Miq’kmaq in Nova Scotia have official status, but the African-Canadians in Nova Scotia do not have official status, but they’re a minority. In Nunavut, the Inuit are a majority, and they have official government policy to ensure that their culture is not only maintained but also enhanced. We wanted to see whether or not the different policies influence the use of IT in these different groups.”

Murray Horn of the Nunavut Department of Education is enthusiastic about the study’s approach.

“It’s always exciting to have research that ultimately is applicable to students up here regardless of perspective, whether it’s being done in Nova Scotia or Nunavut,”” he said. “”I think it’s a benefit to all. And it shrinks the Canadian map — we’re just electrons away, not miles.”

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