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Let's Get Digital: United for Literacy's Digital Transformation Story

Mar. 16 2023

Challenges posed by COVID-19: the need for a digital strategy 

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns had a significant impact on the way we worked, just as it did for many other organizations. Before March 2020, 90% of our programs and services were in person. When the pandemic struck, we switched to being almost completely online for the first time in our history. Technology allowed us to stay connected, even as we stayed in our own homes.  

As a learning organization, we knew we needed to explore the ways we could use digital technology. We needed a plan to sustain operations and adapt to our evolving world. We saw the opportunity to dream about what the future could be for our learners, our organization, and the whole literacy sector.  

Yet, for our partners, volunteer tutors, and learners, it wasn't always simple. The ability to pivot to online depended on individual and community circumstances. Not every person has internet in their home. In fact, not every community has reliable internet access. Some people may only have access to a phone, which makes some tasks more challenging than on a computer. It was—and remains—a priority to make sure everyone who wants to learn can access our programs. 

These changes were also unsettling for some people. New technology can be scary for an organization that values personal relationships. Virtual reality and artificial intelligence seem to be the opposite of face-to-face support. Apps can seem impersonal, too. Could chatbots replace our dedicated volunteer tutors in the future? To be clear, we're confident we can use AI and other tech advances to improve online programs. We value the way our tutors create personal relationships while supporting learners. We have always taken pride in the bonds we make with our learners. 

The 2021 Canada Helps Study on digital technology says there are massive skill gaps in charities’ use of digital technology. Sixty-six per cent of charities reported that the adoption of digital tools is a lower priority. A lack of funding or skills is a barrier to using digital tools for over 55% of respondents. 
Nonprofit and charitable organizations are often left out of the digital transformation conversations that shape the world. This can result in missed opportunities for operations, reach, and impact. It also creates challenges in connecting with new supporters, partners, volunteers, and donors. Digital change can be intimidating. Some organizations abandon digital technology because they don't know where to start. This puts the sector’s sustainability at great risk and limits our ability to innovate.  

Bridging the literacy gap is possible. It is the most important tool for creating a more positive future for everyone in Canada. We know that the people most affected by COVID-19 lockdowns already experience barriers to literacy and learning. Having limited-to-no access to technology creates a further challenge. To bridge the literacy gap, we must be able to connect. 

Digital divide 1: Literacy gap and access to technology 

We know that many learners in our programs are working to advance their digital literacy skills. They are likely among the 45% of Canadians who score at the lowest levels of digital literacy.  A large percentage of these people have very limited access to bandwidth and equipment. We asked ourselves:  

  • How could we set up a digital transformation strategy that would support the digital skills development of our learners?  
  • How would this strategy address barriers to access, including equipment, technology, and connectivity?  

This is the biggest and most pressing challenge our learners face, and we cannot solve the issue on our own. 

Digital divide 2: The organizational resource gap

Like many nonprofits and charities, we faced limitations:
  • Our staff and volunteers had limited tech skills  
  • We had to find the financial resources to dedicate to our digital transformation  

We asked ourselves: 

  • How would we develop our internal resources (staff capacity, skills, and knowledge) and systems? 
  • How would we fund development to begin to launch a digital transformation strategy?  

Digital divide 3: No seat at the table  

We were absent from the tech and digital transformation conversations. We had no seat at the table!  
Valentine Goddard is a member of the Advisory Council on AI (Artificial Intelligence) of Canada and a United Nations Expert on Artificial Intelligence (AI) Policy and Governance. She says: “In the upcoming months and years, there are critical choices to be made to ensure that artificial intelligence (AI) laws reflect citizens’ values, and to achieve this, Civil Society Organizations (nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, social entrepreneurs) must have a seat at the table.  

Having a seat at the table means that citizens have a say on how they want AI to improve public services, how they want to be protected from harmful uses of AI, and how they can take part in shaping the future of their children and the planet.”  

We asked ourselves: 

  • How would we increase our influence and take part in important discussions that are shaping the world today? 
  • How could we make sure to leave no one behind, especially our learners?  

Where and how to start  

Facing these three challenges we wondered where and how to start.  

Step 1: Internal discussions  
We started a thorough internal consultation. This included an epic Town Hall meeting in the spring of 2021. We focused on identifying (and dreaming up) digital tools and strategies to help us improve: 

  • the learning experiences of our current learners 
  • outreach to the communities and individuals we weren't serving 

Next, we made a list of all the people and organizations who needed to be part of this conversation. We looked for help. 

We formed an internal committee of staff with a range of tech know-how and from a variety of organizational roles. This committee became a space for:

  • sharing knowledge 
  • incubating ideas 
  • and defining and measuring the digital strategy’s impact 

The committee's focus was to:

  • bridge the digital gaps of our learners and staff 
  • develop tools and resources 
  • and explore cutting-edge technology 

Our informal tech research and development team was born.  

Step 2:  Work with our partners to bridge the divides 

Due to limited internal capacity and resources, we needed to expand our organizational knowledge and start to bridge the three digital divides. We turned to our trusted partners to support our digital transformation. We also sought out new partners who could reinforce our increased use of technology. These initiatives include:  

Digital Divide 1: Increasing our learners' lower literacy skill levels  

  • Developing and deploying new digital literacy skills and coding modules in our programs. 
  • Finding funders, such as The Wilson Foundation, who are willing to fund equipment purchase for our learners (tablets and laptops). 
  • Expanding our reach in rural and remote areas by an increased use of existing platforms through the Connected North Initiative.
  • Partnering with the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation to pilot Rally Reader, a reading tutor app powered by AI. 
  • Working with Rise, an online training platform. On Rise, we built customized lesson plans and activities. Learners living in remote areas without permanent staff used these materials to prepare for the Trades Entrance Exam.  
  • Collaborating with ESUMA, a longstanding partner in Nunavik, to recreate Inuit legends in a virtual environment to get readers to "truly take part in the story," whether they followed in Inuktitut, English, or French. 
  • Building and testing a reading tracker app for families and classrooms. This is in partnership with the University of Toronto Department of Computer Science.

    This was one of the greatest learning experiences for us. We deepened our knowledge about privacy law, terms of use, how apps are built, how app stores function, external servers, etc. The final product might never be released. In fact, the tutors who tested the app recommended that we shelve it. They thought the concept was great but would only work if made accessible to our young learners, and we do not have the legal means to make it accessible to minors. But no regrets! A lot of the key learnings from this project will be useful for the next one.  

It is important to note that we made sure that all the products listed above would work in areas with intermittent access to internet and/or low bandwidth.   

Digital divide 2: Building our organizational resources  

  • Creating an online Learner Management System for improved data collection and evaluation. This is possible thanks to funding from the Government of Canada and the Ontario Trillium Foundation.   
  • Working with RBC and the Taproot Foundation, who created a pro bono blueprint for our digital strategy. This included:  
    • Pathways to scaling learner and volunteer virtual learning experiences  
    • Ideas for customizing our learning content  
    • A step-by-step pathway to standardizing our tools, platforms, and processes. This is an elaborate plan that we are going to build one step at a time.   

Digital divide 3: Getting a seat at the table  

  • Meeting with Innovation, Science and Economic Development to position United to Literacy as a partner of choice when it comes to equipping people who experience challenges with digital skills and advocating for a seat at the table during national conversations about digital transformation.
  • Learning with AI Impact Alliance about the use of Responsible AI for socially beneficial purposes and understanding the ethical and emerging regulatory context of AI systems and data.

Throughout these adventures, I am proud to say that we were able to keep a balanced approach between taking risks, trying new things, and staying focused on our mission and our commitment to deliver the highest quality of service to our learners. 

This is only the beginning. I can say with confidence that the hardest things are behind us: overcoming our fears and taking our first steps forward. Sharing best practices, tools, and information is more crucial than ever in our field.  

We would love to hear about your experiences with technology. Tell us where you are on your digital transformation journey--including if you're just starting to imagine it right now.  

Unite with us in the digital transformation conversation! 
— Mel Valcin
CEO and President of United for Literacy
Follow Mélanie on LinkedIn and Twitter

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