The project quickly trained up local researchers to go door-to-door information gathering and created an online #NWTDigitalDivide campaign encouraging those in Northern communities to share their internet challenges, and to take an internet upload and download speed test then screenshot and share results. “Some people in Ulukhaktok couldn’t even take the speed test, that’s how bad their internet is. Even the college employee in Ulukhaktok has to go home to attend video calls because the connectivity there is better than at work,” says Dokunmu.
The information gathered in this campaign was put into a report presented to consultations on Northern services held by the CRTC and generated significant media interest. The hope is that it will help fuel policy changes that will help promote more digital equity. “Historically Indigenous groups across Canada have secured funding to build their own community networks and internet infrastructures,” says McMahon, “In the past, there have been many other policy successes driven by Indigenous innovators and Indigenous internet service providers that have contributed to substantial developments.”
Developing and delivering course materials
In the first year of the project back in 2019, the DigitalNWT team developed the first set of course materials, which were then presented to adult educators from across the NWT during an in-person train-the-trainer session held in Inuvik. They told the group to rip it apart and tell them what was wrong, or missing. “We ended up redesigning everything. It’s amazing what you learn. Then we delivered the course in the communities and got more feedback from instructors and learners, then did the second version. We see it as this iterative process,” says Michael McNally, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta.
This collaborative process has helped the project build trust in the communities that it works with, as has their work in raising awareness on access to the internet and the exorbitant fees that people in the North often have to pay for sub-par delivery of services. To address limited access to devices, Smart Communities Society, which administers the Computers for Schools program, provides learners with refurbished computers.
One challenge when it comes to designing a curriculum is that there is a range of existing levels of digital literacy in communities. “When we started piloting these workshops in Gwichʼin communities in 2017/2018, people were coming up to us to ask how to attach a photo to a text message to send somebody, so at a very beginner level. But then you also have visual artists, musicians, and other innovators who are already very skillfully using the internet as a tool,” McMahon says.
The flexibility of these courses has helped them be successful, says Dylanger. “The first course had enough to interest people that use a computer every day and still be relatable to Elders who have never used a computer,” she says. “These courses are different from any courses that we’ve delivered before. They are more hardware-based and getting more into the nitty-gritty and explaining how those things work, which helps you take more ownership, helping you know if you’re getting what you are promised and takes some of the mystery of the services that are provided.”
Feedback has been incredibly positive; there’s a thirst for this knowledge. “Our communities want the chance to learn about technology, especially now with Covid taking so much of life online,” Dylanger says. “Because the courses are now ours to use, they will be that part of our tool kit, for sure,” Dylanger says. Courses will continue to be offered free of charge to all participants.
Continuing the project
Federal government funding for the project is currently slated to end in March 2022 and Digital NWT is developing a transition plan that will enable free and open access to the courses that they’ve developed, which would continue to be taught by instructors trained through the project. “The plan was always to build the capacity in the North and leave it there, and in our last class, which is about building local networks, we are planning to provide a kit in a box that contains a server and a few wireless access points. We’d love to teach people in the last class to set it up and it gives them a way to access our curriculum on that server. That way people can take it and run with it,” explains McMahon.
That said, the DigitalNWT team would love to secure more funding and keep the project going. The project is receiving requests for course delivery in communities outside of the NWT, such as in Northern Alberta and the Yukon. Community residents have also shared some ideas for other courses. “There is demand for what we are delivering,” says Dokunmu.
DigitalNWT is one of 60 projects on MakeWay’s shared platform that benefit from being part of a mission-aligned community and having access to MakeWay’s expertise gained from decades of experience in the charitable sector and shared administrative resources. With MakeWay’s shared platform, changemakers share a suite of centralized organizational supports, and coaching when needed, so more time and money can go towards building strong, vibrant, just communities and a healthier planet.