Exploring the Digital Lives of Youth: Creating Conditions for Digital Equity in Ontario

A project that explores the understanding of students' online experiences in Ontario

Objectives of the research

This research has been funded by an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) (# 430-2018-00567). The project began in the fall of 2019 and will continue until the fall of 2021. Its aim is to better understand the experiences of teachers and students. We want to compare the perspectives of teachers in English and French language schools in Ontario to better understand whether digital inequalities exist and the particularities of these digital inequalities that potentially divide minority and majority language groups online in Ontario.

Our central research question is as follows: How do students’ online experiences differ between majority and minority language communities in Ontario?

Our research sub-questions for Phase 1 of this study are as follows:

1) What are the online experiences of elementary students in Ontario from the perspective of teachers?

2) What are the most needed digital literacy interventions from a teacher’s perspective?

3) What are teachers’ reflections on the digital inequities that affect (or do not affect) their students?

Our Theoretical Framing

Theoretical framework

Our research and methods are informed by the Dual-level Theory of New Literacies that position digital literacies learning and teaching as socially and culturally situated practices. This theory curates an interdisciplinary set of assumptions to guide the study of digital literacies learning and teaching. This theoretical framework:

  • positions the Internet as the most important technology for literacies in our globally connected world;
  • situates literacies in social, cultural and linguistic systems and practices;
  • emphasizes critical evaluation of information through the application of these integrated, critical lenses as foundational to the literacies of online reading and research;
  • identifies the pivotal role that teachers play in designing learning experiences to support digital literacies learning in school.

Two key concepts surrounding our research: digital literacies and the digital divide


Digital divide

Following from the Dual-level theory of New Literacies, and informed by multiple definitions of digital literacies (Glister, 1997; Spires, Bartlett, Garry & Quick, 2012), web literacies (Chung, Gill & O’Byrne, 2014) and media and information literacies (UNESCO, 2013) we define digital literacies as all of the knowledges, skills, practices, strategies and mindsets needed to construct meaning from digital texts, to create digital texts and to participate in digital networks confidently, critically, ethically and efficiently for diverse purposes in school, at work, and in one’s personal life.

Digital divide

Digital divides are multiple and multifaceted. Reports show that globally, the highest-earning jobs in knowledge economies require workers to apply a range of print-based and digital literacies skills to solve complex problems in technology-mediated environments (OECD, 2012; Statistics Canada, 2013). However, approximately 6 million Canadian citizens (17% of the population), mostly in low-income and remote communities, still lack access to reliable, affordable high-speed Internet connections (CRTC 2014, 2016). This access divide is sometimes called the first-tier digital divide (e.g., Clinton & Gore, 2000) and it has created at least two other divides globally and in Canada. Evidence suggests that Canadians who have limited access to the Internet use the Internet less, and for a less diverse range of Internet activities (Haight, Quaan-Haas & Corbett, 2014). In one study of 11 and 16 year-olds living in Québec, school poverty index correlated with the number of different technologies students used each week. The more affluent the community, the more likely it was for students to use a broader set of digital technologies (Collin et al., 2016). This is the digital use divide. And as we might expect, evidence also suggests that digital use and digital skills correlate. One study found that by middle school, children living in a less affluent community and who had had a more limited range of experiences with digital technologies were less able to find, evaluate, synthesize and communicate digital information than their more affluent peers (Leu et al., 2014). Some studies show that when low-income and traditionally marginalized youth do have access to digital technologies, their digital use activities both in and outside of school rarely include complex problem-solving, inquiry or creation of innovative products with digital technologies (Chen, 2013; Hargittai & Hsieh, 2013). This is what we mean by the digital skills divide. For children living in poverty and who have limited access to digital tools, studies have identified measurable differences in the skills and strategies they know and are able to apply to solve problems in comparison with higher-income peers. In summary, limited access to the Internet and to digital technologies means limited use and fewer opportunities to build skills.


Chung, A-M., Gill, I.B., & O’Byrne, W.I. (2014). Web literacy 2.0. Mozilla Foundation. Retrieved from https://mozilla.github.io/content/web-lit-whitepaper/

Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (2014). Communications Monitoring Report 2014. CRTC Catalogue No. BC9-9/2014E-PDF. Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/publications/reports/PolicyMonitoring/2014/cmr.pdf

Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (2016). CRTC submission to the government of Canada’s innovation agenda. Ottawa, ON: CRTC. Retrieved from http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/publications/reports/rp161221/rp161221.pdf

Chen, B. (2015). Exploring the Digital Divide: The Use of Digital Technologies in Ontario Public Schools. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology / La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, 41(3). doi:10.21432/T2KP6F

Clinton, W. & Gore, A. (2000). The Clinton-Gore Administration: From digital divide to digital opportunity. Washington, DC: The White House. Retrieved from http://clinton4.nara.gov/textonly/WH/New/digitaldivide/digital1.html

Collin, S., Karsenti, T., Ndimubandi, A., & Saffari, H. (2016). Connected Generation? Digital Inequalities in Elementary and High School Students According to Age and Socioeconomic Level / Une génération connectée? Inégalités numériques chez les élèves du primaire et du secondaire selon l’âge et le milieu socioéconomique. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 42(5), 1–17.

Glister, P. (1997). Digital literacy. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Son.

Spires, H., Bartlett, M. E., Garry, A., & Quick, A. H. (2012). Literacies and learning : Designing a path forward. Raleigh, NC: Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, North Carolina State University.

Haight, M., Quan-Haase, A., & Corbett, B. A. (2014). Revisiting the digital divide in Canada: The impact of demographic factors on access to the internet, level of online activity, and social networking site usage. Information, Communication & Society, 17(4), 503-519. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2014.891633

Hargittai, E., & Hsieh, Y. P. (2013). Digital inequality. In W. Dutton (Ed.), Oxford handbook of Internet studies (pp. 129–150). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Leu, D. J., Forzani, E., Rhoads, C., Maykel, C, Kennedy, C & Timbrell, N (2014). The new literacies of online research and comprehension: Rethinking the reading achievement gap. Reading Research Quarterly, 50(1), 37–59. doi:10.1002/rrq.85

OECD (2012). Literacy, Numeracy and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments: Framework for the OECD Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing. doi: 10.1787/9789264128859-en

Statistics Canada (2013). Skills in Canada: First Results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 89-555-X. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-555-x/89-555-x2013001-eng.pdf

UNESCO (2013). Media and Information Literacy: Policy and strategy guidelines. A. Grizzle & M.C.T. Calvo (Eds.). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Communication and Information Sector. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/.

Our Research Methods

Phase 1 : We are inviting, on a voluntary basis, teachers in Grades 4, 5 or 6 who work in English and French Catholic and public school boards in the province of Ontario to take part in this project by participating in semi-directed online interviews. The interviews are approximately 45 minutes in length and allow participants to discuss (1) their students’ online experiences, (2) the digital literacy interventions most needed, and (3) their reflections on the digital inequities that are affecting or not affecting their students.

Our research is particularly interested in Grades 4, 5 and 6 for three reasons:

(a) the range of digital tools that students can access and the complexity of the skills they can acquire are more advanced than in the primary grades;

(b) the development of digital skills is crucial at this age as it will enable students to succeed in the intermediate and higher grades;

(c) we have worked with students in this age group in previous research projects and in our other current SSHRC project (e.g., Hagerman, 2017 and Hagerman and Cotnam-Kappel, submitted).

Follow our search results

Once we have gathered and analyzed data, we will publish findings here.