Mar. 16 2023
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.
We know that many learners in our programs have low 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:
This is the biggest and most pressing challenge our learners face, and we cannot solve the issue on our own.
We asked ourselves:
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:
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:
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:
The committee's focus was to:
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:
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.
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
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