We’re overdue for a digital-economy strategy
TheGlobeandMail.com – ROB
Published Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010. Sheridan Scott
Two years ago, Australia launched an ambitious program to fully prepare all of its children to live and work in the digital economy. Its $2-billion Digital Education Revolution involves national and state governments, school boards, teachers, learning resources and infrastructure, and has specific, measurable goals: By the end of 2011, for example, every Australian secondary school will have a computer for every student.
What is Canada doing to make digital literacy a reality on a national scale? Very little. Nor is it keeping up with other countries in the race to establish an overarching digital-economy strategy. In fact, we’re still at the discussion stage. After several months of consultations earlier this year, Industry Minister Tony Clement says the government will launch Canada’s digital economy strategy next spring.
Our major trading partners, meanwhile, are two steps ahead. Britain and Australia firmed up strategies in 2009 and are already moving on them, such as Australia’s commitment to invest $43-billion in a super-fast National Broadband Network to provide its people with next-generation services. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has published its National Broadband Plan, outlining not only the steps needed to provide all Americans with access to basic broadband, but also its plans to harness digital technologies for the benefit of health, education and the environment.
In Canada, meanwhile, we have yet to decide on whether to set standards for Canadians’ access to broadband and have punted resolution of the key issue of foreign ownership in the telecom sector well into 2011. This has a big impact on a successful digital-economy strategy, because access to foreign capital is critical for the investments needed for the next generation of telecommunications networks.
However, while access to broadband Internet for all Canadians should be a central piece of Ottawa’s digital-economy strategy, it isn’t an end in itself. Broadband enables economic growth and innovation but its full potential won’t be realized without the ability of Canadians to access, use, understand and create with digital technology. In other words – until our citizens are fully digitally literate.
So far, the federal government has focused on the labour force and digital skills for the work place. This is important, but any serious engagement with digital literacy must begin with children, not working adults, and must take a wide approach.
We certainly must help Canadians acquire basic technical skills to engage with computers and the Internet, to create digital content, and to communicate through social media. More crucial, however, is to understand the learning process itself – to determine whether digital media are changing the way in which we acquire knowledge and to assess whether current teaching methods can ensure Canadians have the critical thinking skills required in the digital economy.
Other countries, including the U.S., Australia and the U.K., are well ahead of Canada in this area, too. But Ottawa is reluctant to act on basic educational issues, because it is an area of provincial and territorial responsibility.
While the provinces are certainly prime movers, the federal government has several levers at hand to help create a national strategy to ensure all Canadian children are truly equipped to function effectively in the digital economy.
The first lever is the power to convene. Mr. Clement has called a meeting of the country’s economic development ministers early in the new year, at which they are to focus on digital skills development and broadband access. But to create a digital literacy strategy, policy makers should concentrate on children and education, not businesses and the labour force. Ottawa could convene a multi-stakeholder group to develop a national strategy and action plan, as the U.K. did when it created the Digital Britain Media Literacy Working Group.
Another lever is spending power. A strong incentive for all provinces to pursue national goals is the sharing of costs. Australia’s Digital Education Revolution is a powerful illustration of what can happen when governments, schools and individuals commit to a national, collaborative goal.
Finally, Ottawa has the power to inspire by leadership. Prime Minister Stephen Harper could appoint a cabinet champion to speak out – loudly and decisively – on the importance of preparing our children for the global digital economy. More importantly, this champion could be charged with guiding a multi-stakeholder group to make it happen.
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