Chapter 2: The digital divide and adult learners

The digital divide is the difference between those who have access to affordable technology, skills and opportunities to leverage those skills and those who don’t. Examining the digital divide helps us understand the inequities and impacts that result in digital exclusion. People who are digitally excluded are often those who already experience socio-economic inequities, including those with low-incomes, people in rural and remote areas, Indigenous Peoples, older adults, people of colour and those with disabilities. 

Stats about adult learners and broader affordability problems

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Connectivity and affordability problem

In addition to a long-standing challenge with infrastructure in rural and remote areas (only 46% of rural Canadians and 35% of First Nations have access to 50/10 megabits per second internet speeds compared to 99% of urban households), having a low income is a persistent determinant of digital exclusion. Those with low incomes are often older, have lower levels of education, are racialized, are Indigenous and are recent immigrants. In Toronto for example, those in lower income neighbourhoods have fewer devices, lower levels of connection and slower speeds when they're connected. 

Canadians with low incomes are less likely to have a household internet connection and a home computer, and more likely to rely on smartphones and public Wi-Fi. In 2016, 45% of Canadians earning less than $32,000 did not have a home internet subscription compared to 13% on average. When low income Canadians do get connected, they devote more of their budgets to services, sometimes sacrificing other basic needs. And they can only afford basic, limited and slower services. Canadians earning less than $32,000 spent 9% of their budget on communications with an average monthly cost of $149. In comparison, those with the highest incomes, earning more than $130,000 spent only 2% on communications, with an average monthly cost of $307. 

Most adult learners in LBS programs have low incomes due to precarious and poorly paid work and reliance on income supports.  About 40% of learners — which is four times the provincial average — rely on some form of income support, such as welfare and disability supports. Others who do work are in poorly paid part-time jobs. Their struggles with low income are often the reason they seek out an LBS program as they begin the journey to gain a credential or enter a learning and training program that can lead to more stable and better-paid work.

An LBS educator who works in a community-based program described the challenges her learners faced when programs closed in the spring of 2020:

I found most of them did not have a laptop or a desktop. They had phones. None of them have internet. Some just have a data plan to check their emails. Those who do have a cell phone with data, have limited minutes. Some learners did not feel comfortable running up their data. When we were open, they came to the site and used our Wi-Fi to check email.

What educators and co-ordinators told us

In another AlphaPlus project, educators and program co-ordinators shared their experiences working with learners who face access and affordability challenges. Excerpts below are from the Wayfinders Studio, Personalized Delivery, 2021.

Struggling with internet in northern Ontario

Just 27 kilometers north of me, I have four learners — five now — there is no internet in their community at all. Don't even think about slow, it doesn't exist. We're on slow speed DSL. The highest speed upload, download, anything that my computer would do — is three kbps [kilobits per second]. I've had Bell in here. We've tried everything. They said it's so archaic — because it's rural, because it's in the north, because there's next to no population — the infrastructure doesn't exist. You can pay Bell hundreds of dollars a month, but you're not going to get any better than what you have. That's been our challenge and hardware for learners. I'm so surprised. We work with them so much and I didn't realize that they all manage with just their phone and the phone has limited minutes. When the libraries closed, that took a lifeline away from them.

What about software and subscriptions? 

This is where the biggest issue has been — this whole concept of hardware/software/internet now. In the old days, if you recall, if you bought a laptop or a computer, it came preloaded. I've had learners bring their laptop in because I'm doing a video lesson and I ask them to pull up Excel and they can’t find it. I've been having them come to the office so I can look and there's nothing —t here’s no preloaded software. It's $100 to buy Microsoft Word — how are they going to get $100? The fact that OW [Ontario Works] got them a little laptop is great, but it has no software on it other than Windows 10. These issues have definitely been very challenging.

In Toronto, adult learners managesort of

They all have computers. Some of them will be on their phone for the Zoom meeting. And they manage — God knows how — they manage okay. But they do their homework on a computer. It depends on the kids and how many computers there are in the house.

A couple of them have got funds to get themselves a computer through OW [Ontario Works]. They've just got approval for the funds. There's one other who is waiting on the school lending a device. They all did this at the beginning — if they didn't have a device or if they didn't have internet, they sorted it out one way or another.