Celebrating Essential Skills Day: Digital literacy is an essential skill for ESL literacy learners

Published Oct 13, 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015 is the sixth annual Essential Skills Day, initiated by ABC Life Literacy Canada[1] to raise awareness about the importance of workplace literacy and essential skills training. The nine essential skills[2] are the foundation for all other skills and learning, helping people to evolve and adapt as their communities and workplaces change. In this article in the Stories from the Field series, we celebrate an innovative program at Bow Valley College that is increasing the digital literacy skills of ESL literacy learners one laptop computer at a time.

What exactly does digital literacy mean?

“Established and internationally accepted definitions of digital literacy are generally built on three principles:

  • the skills and knowledge to access and use a variety of digital media software applications and hardware devices, such as a computer, a mobile phone, and Internet technology
  • the ability to critically understand digital media content and applications
  • the knowledge and capacity to create with digital technology.”

(Media Awareness Network 2010, p. i)

In other words, digital literacy is much more than being able to use a cell phone or watch a video on the internet. It is having the technical skills to use computers and the internet, being able to understand, contextualize, and evaluate media, and finally, being able to create or produce content to effectively communicate to different audiences (e.g., resumes or homework assignments). Digital literacy is the key to being able to participate fully in Canadian society and access opportunities for ongoing learning, employment, and community life.

“By promoting the digital literacy development of learners through the curriculum, teachers are able to contribute to enhancing their potential for participation in digital media. This means enhancing young people’s ability to use digital media in ways that strengthen their skills, knowledge and understanding as learners, and that heighten their capacities for social, cultural, civic and economic participation in everyday life.” (Hague and Williamson 2009, 28)

Using Technology to Learn and Learning to Use Technology: Transforming Teaching and Learning Practices at Bow Valley College

It is the first week of classes in the Bridge program at Bow Valley College. Mohammed, an ESL literacy student, is just starting his first term. He is happy to learn that he will be receiving a laptop computer of his own to use while in the Bridge program. He eagerly signs it out and carefully carries it home excited about exploring this (new to him) tool. Mohammed is one of over 60 learners in Bridge who will be receiving laptops this trimester as part of the program.[3]

The Bridge program serves immigrant youth between the ages of 18 and 24 with interrupted formal education. They are ESL learners and literacy learners, working on improving their skills in reading, writing, learning strategies, and essential skills. The goal of the program is to help learners identify and transition into the next step in their educational or occupational pathways. These may include adult basic education, high school upgrading, secondary education, or workplace training. Bow Valley College’s Vision 2020[4] document articulates and supports the development of these kinds of seamless learning pathways for lifelong learners.

Network_201404_ (5)While the Bridge program is highly original itself as a state-of-the-art transitioning program,[5] a key innovation within the program is the distribution of laptops to each learner and their incorporation into the curriculum.

Daniel Merryfield and Donald Morris, ESL literacy practitioners who teach in the Bridge program, have been instrumental in implementing the laptop program. I recently spoke to them to find out more about how the program works and how it has affected teaching and learning.

Don started the conversation. “With the introduction of laptops in 2013, our approach to teaching has changed. The expectations, the way we present things, the way we work, the way learners manage work, all that has changed. And it continues to change. As the laptop program develops so does our understanding of how to best use laptops in the program.”

Dan described how the laptop program works. “We give the students a laptop the first or second week of the term and they keep it. While the learners have the laptops, they are their responsibility. The main goal of this program is to get our learners comfortable using computers and prepared for academic upgrading or other pathways. Many of our learners come with very little exposure to technology…when I say technology what I mean is using a computer, say a laptop or a tablet. The exposure they’ve had is basically through cell phones and social media so they’re quite comfortable using things like Facebook… And as literacy learners, they are still learning to read and write. If they were given an assignment in the first week of classes that involved writing something, typing it and emailing it, many learners would struggle because they don’t have the literacy or the technology skills to complete this task.”

Bow Valley College utilizes D2L (Desire to Learn), an online teaching and learning platform,[6] as part of its commitment to ‘learning anytime anywhere’. This becomes especially relevant within the laptop program.

Don explained how the two work together. “With D2L, learners are able to access the work that we have in the classroom and everything is very organized for them. It’s easy for them to find the work that they need to do, to submit their homework, to communicate with their classmates, or to communicate with the instructor. It’s a very good platform. In my classroom, the way I use D2L has changed a lot of things. For example, in paragraph writing, the first draft would be done in writing and then I’ll correct it, and give it back to them. Learners use Microsoft Word to do their second draft and send me their file through D2L. I look at their second draft and either give them a printed copy or send it back to them through D2L. Everything we do in the classroom, whether it’s a paper copy or electronic copy, I put up onto D2L so they have easy access to it.”

Dan added, “Teaching and learning responses to D2L have been very positive. It serves as a repository of all our work. We have midterms approaching next week and my learners can access every reading that we’ve done, they can access all the vocabulary words, they can access all the writing assignments as well. They have that copy, that’s always there. And as for teaching, I’ve saved all of the learning materials each trimester, so I can go back three trimesters and see what I did, the readings are all right there. So it’s a great tool for organizing…. It’s an extension of our classroom.”

Bridge has four levels: Intermediate, High Intermediate, Advanced, and Advanced Transition. They correspond roughly to Canadian Language Benchmarks 2-6. Learners work through the different levels, moving on to the next when they have achieved competency in a given level. They may repeat levels if necessary. Upon completion of the Advanced Transition level they will have met the requirements to transition to Adult Basic Education or Upgrading. The expectations of what the students can do with technology (laptops and D2L) increase in difficulty as the learners work their way up through the levels of the Bridge program.

Success Stories

Don described some of the successes he has seen coming out of the laptop program. “We see a lot of success stories of our learners who have moved on to Upgrading or into Career programs, or who are actually working now…. We have alumni coming back to the program and saying how much it meant to them in preparation for their education or in their jobs. …Because when they go into a career program, they’re expected to know how to use Microsoft Office, they should know how to use Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Publisher, applications like that. So with the laptop program, we use technology to learn but we also learn to use technology in the classroom.  You can see a lot of transferable skills. The fact that they are now able to use applications such Microsoft Word or PowerPoint gives them confidence and gives them more opportunities.  I believe, for the younger generation like our learners, technology is a necessary tool. Without it, it’s a definite hindrance to whatever career or educational path they want to take.”

Dan added, “I’ve had students come back to me quite happy, quite pleased because they were able to apply online for a job. If I walk into a store with a resume they’re going to tell me go to the website. For our learners this was an access issue. They were being shut out of certain jobs, and the opportunity to even get into some industries. But now they’re more comfortable being online and they’re more comfortable using a computer. The task of filling out a resume is one skill but the task of filling out a resume online is another skill and it was too much for them. They feel empowered that they can go online, they can put it in their application and for them it’s quite rewarding. We’re talking about literacy and digital literacy for our students.”

“Literacy in the year 2015 includes digital literacy. Quite often people make the assumption, they’re young so they know how to use computers. And when learners don’t have those skills, they feel they’re being shut out from a lot of opportunities. Being able to read and write also means being able to read and write online, there’s a lot more involved in it than just simply pen and paper.” – Dan Merryfield

Access to Technology and the Digital Divide

When we talk about digital literacy and participation in our digital society, it’s important to acknowledge the effects social and economic class have on accessing opportunities. According to a 2010 Statistics Canada report, socioeconomic factors are the most significant barriers to increasing digital literacy among adults, and the digital divide is significant in Canada. It reports that 94% of individuals in the top income bracket (above $85,000 per year) used the internet while only 56% of those in the lowest income bracket (less than $30,000 per year) report internet use (Statistics Canada 2010, cited in Greig and Hughes 2012, 20). Greig and Hughes go on to suggest “one way forward would be to increase and expand publicly funded digital literacy classrooms and spaces that afford those adults in most need open access to the Internet and rich, ongoing opportunities to develop digital literacy skills” (20).

Dan concurs. “One thing we learned as a program is a lot of our learners had difficulty accessing the internet at home due to the cost. It’s just too much money. At one point half my class didn’t have internet service at home due to the cost. When we put things online I always tell my learners that they can access it at BVC or in the Calgary Public Library. A take away from that is that having public WiFi and having free Wifi in institutions like Bow Valley College becomes very critical.”

One final aspect of access needs to be emphasized. Traditionally, learners attend a computer class once or twice a week and have access to computer labs in between classes. It can be difficult for ESL literacy learners to access technology independently. There is a world of difference between learning how to use technology in a lab once or twice a week, and actually putting a laptop computer into learners’ hands for them to have and to work on for the duration of the program. The laptop program not only provides the hardware, but also provides the instructional support needed to increase learners’ digital literacy skills within the context of learning language and numeracy skills.

Something to Consider in Implementing a Laptop Program

Don shared an important learning from the program. “I think we realized that in order to introduce a program like this, you need a larger community behind you. And what that means is you’re going to need the financial support to pay for these laptops and as the program is growing, to buy additional laptops. You also need IT support, because you can’t expect the instructors to be IT specialists. We also have people who help distribute the laptops at the beginning of the term and collect them [at the end]. We learned that you need a big team and a lot of support behind you in order to make this program a successful one.”

Dan agreed. “We’re very fortunate that Bow Valley College is the size that it is and that we have the IT infrastructure like D2L. We also have an IT team to support us…. I think a smaller school or smaller provider would have to invest a sizeable amount to have the hardware, enough WIFI, and the IT support.”

Some Final Words

Don concluded by saying, “I think where we are in the Bridge program, having this laptop program, we are in some respects on the forefront of what’s happening in technology for young adult learners…. I also think our main purpose is to share what we’re doing…and how successful it is and how useful it is and we hope by doing things like webinars and communicating with a larger audience, that it will spread.”[7] 

It is clear that digital literacy is an essential skill in the 21st century. ESL literacy practitioners Donald Morris and Daniel Merryfield, and their colleagues in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement, successfully demonstrate the many benefits of introducing laptop computers into the curriculum. The laptop program used in conjunction with the D2L learning platform provides an effective and innovative way to help young adult immigrant learners prepare for life in a digital world.


Daniel Merryfield and Donald Morris, ESL literacy practitioners who teach in the Bridge program at Bow Valley College.

“…the computer is not a toy; it is the site of wealth, power and influence, now and in the future. Women and indigenous people and those with few resources cannot afford to be marginalised or excluded from this new medium. To do so will risk becoming information poor. It will not be to count; to be locked out of full participation in society in the same way that illiterate people have been disenfranchised in a print world.” (Spender 1995, quoted by Moriarty 2011, 15)


Greig, Christopher, and Janette Hughes. 2012. Adult Learners and Digital Media: Exploring the Use of Digital Media with Adult Literacy Learners. Toronto: AlphaPlus. Retrieved from http://alphaplus.ca/en/web-tools/online-publications-a-reportsgroup1/adult-learners-and-digital-media-2012.html

Hague, Cassie, and Ben Williamson. 2009. Digital Participation, Digital Literacy, aAnd School Subjects: A Review of the Policies, Literature and Evidence. Bristol, UK: Futurelab. Retrieved from http://www.futurelab.org.uk/sites/default/files/Digital_Participation_review.pdf

Media Awareness Network. 2010. Digital Literacy in Canada: From Inclusion to Transformation. A Submission to the Digital Economy Strategy Consultation. Ottawa, ON: MediaSmarts. Retrieved from http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/pdfs/publication-report/full/digitalliteracypaper.pdf

Moriarty, Maria. 2011. Finding Our Way: Digital Technologies and E-Learning for Adult Literacy Students, Educators and Programs Literature Scan: 2005-2011. Toronto: AlphaPlus. Retrieved from http://alphaplus.ca/en/literacy-research/332-finding-our-way.html

[1] http://abclifeliteracy.ca/

[2] The Government of Canada has identified nine essential skills needed for the learning, life, and work: reading, writing, document use, numeracy, computer use, thinking, oral communication, working with others, and continuous learning. ABC Life Literacy Canada provides a good summary description of these on their website (http://abclifeliteracy.ca/nine-essential-skills).

[3] The College distributes 150 laptops each trimester to learners in Bridge and the Youth in Transition program.

[4] Vision 2020: Learning into the Future: A Report to the Community is Bow Valley College’s blueprint for programming directions (http://web.bowvalleycollege.ca/pdf/BVCVision2020Report2011.pdf).

[5] Bridging the Gap: A Framework for Teaching and Transitioning Low Literacy Immigrant Youth reports on the development of the program and describes the “key elements of a successful transition program for young adult literacy learners who have exited high school but are still in need of focused literacy training in order to transition to further educational studies or workplace training” (https://esl-literacy.com/sites/default/files/Bridging%20the%20Gap_0.pdf).

[6] “D2L allows you access to course materials, assignments, quizzes, grades, calendar, email and class discussions using the internet.”  http://bowvalleycollege.ca/campus-services/library-and-learning-commons/desire2learn-introduction.html

[7] In Spring 2014, Don Morris, Dan Merryfield, and Emily Albertsen, another faculty member in the laptop program, presented a webinar titled Learning with Technology on how they integrate technology into the curriculum. This and other professional development webinars are posted on the ESL Literacy Network website.

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