Trying to close the digital divide online

Although the rate of Internet adoption in Canada is “reasonably high,” communication technologies expert Catherine Middleton said there’s still a digital divide and lack of user engagement in the online space.

Middleton holds a Canada Research Chair in Communication Technologies in the Information Society and is also a professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. The Canada Research Chair program is a federal program that provides research professorships to individuals across the country. Middleton’s research focuses on how Canadians use information technology. More specifically, she’s looking at how individuals use the Internet, mobile devices and technologies and is studying the policies that shape an individual’s access to these technologies.

Although it may seem as if everyone is online these days, Middleton said that’s actually not the case.

“We have a reasonably high Internet adoption rate in Canada where 80 per cent of Canadians have used the Internet in the past year,” she said. “When you look at the time that people are spending online and the activities they’re doing, we see that users are using the Internet for relatively simple cases such as for e-mail, basic searching and watching videos online.”

The challenge here is that if more services such as government, healthcare or educational-related offerings are put online, society would need to fully embrace the digital environment or risk being “left behind.” Having an online presence is a fundamental factor in how individuals are able to engage and communicate with one another, she added.

The remaining 20 per cent of Canadians that have not used the Internet can be explained by a number of factors, Middleton said.

“Many people haven’t really had a strong reason to go online because they haven’t found something that really interests them in an online environment,” she said. “A lot of this also has to do with comfort level, because some people are still intimidated by the Internet.”

On the positive side, going online means users would have the added convenience of being able to do things out of the comfort of their own home, such as online shopping, she said. However, there may be some potential short-term problems such as services and other offerings moving online faster than people are able to access them.

In Canada, there’s still a digital divide and gap, Middleton said.

“If you’re older, less educated or have a low income, you’re less likely to be an Internet user,” she said. “But even still, there are some people that may have the income, but they’re just not interested in going online.”

One of the reasons for a lack in Internet use may come directly from the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that don’t typically do a lot of promotion around what the Internet can actually do and what it’s capable of.

She uses the Apple iPad and younger generation users as an example of a mobile product and cultural factor that’s helping to break these boundaries. For example, she said older people that may not have grown up learning about and using the Internet may have a younger family member with an iPad.

“Products like the iPad could help get more people online and interested in the Internet,’ Middleton said. “Since the iPad has a 3G connection built-in, there’s no need for an ISP or broadband connection. I think we’re seeing innovations in the design of products that could carry over into our more general computing environments that would make it easier for beginners to get online and to benefit from what’s out there.”

There also needs to be more education about the Internet in schools to teach students about digital literacy, she said.

“Some of the questions that should be asked are what’s out there? Who do you trust? What does it mean to share your personal information online?” Middleton said. “A lot of that stuff needs to be embedded in the curriculum at schools to not only improve a user’s comfort level, but their confidence as well.”

At the end of this month, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will hold a hearing regarding what kinds of services Canadians should have access to. One of the questions that will be raised is whether or not all Canadians should have access to a broadband connection. After this plays out over the next few months, Middleton said it’s more of a matter of if people have a reason or a need to actually go online.

“Should everyone have access to a broadband connection? That’s something the CRTC is looking at now,” Middleton said. “There will be a decision made on that, yes or no, but that’s a different question compared to should everyone use it?”

Follow Maxine Cheung on Twitter: @MaxineCheungCDN.

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Maxine Cheung
Maxine Cheung
Staff Writer, Computer Dealer News

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