This story is in partnership with Community Learning HUB.
It’s easy to take our high-speed internet for granted. But the reality is that lack of digital access is a prevalent issue across Canada for youth in remote communities.
As more and more of our life has shifted online over the last year, access to the digital world is more important than ever. While most people with a computer and wifi can feel connected to daily life, those without this access can face a dramatic gap in accessing digital tools.
Community Learning HUB is one solution closing the gap in access to digital. It’s an online learning platform that uses a blended approach to learning for marginalized youth. It’s a facilitator-led — meaning there’s a frontline worker from partner agencies who facilitates all of the learning content — program that uses digital technology to enhance the delivery. HUB trains these facilitators who live and work in the communities they serve to deliver life skills programming to youth.
The platform provides interactive courses (or modules) designed for non-profits, who work with marginalized youth in places like after-school clubs, alternative classrooms, and youth justice facilities.
“What HUB is doing is trying to provide a free, accessible platform that can enhance the quality of that program delivery and really bring technology into those spaces,” explained Alison Burkett, manager at Community Learning HUB, adding that the program focuses on teaching topics like gender equality, peace and justice, and finances.
The digital disparity
As HUB works with a number of remote communities, Burkett said that a huge barrier to digital access is the lack of wifi connection. This issue is also present for youth who are in the justice system
“A lot of the spaces that they find themselves in don’t have internet access and so it’s one of the things that creates inequity around their ability to be connected to the world, and to be learning in a style and pace that youth who are more privileged get to experience,” she said.
As a solution to this particular problem, Burkett’s team created Offline HUB. It’s a version of HUB that’s compatible with both Apple and PC products, where the HUB modules can be available directly on the hardware devices so there’s no need for wifi to access them. This means the youth in these areas can run their programming in a reliable way and not have to worry about connectivity hiccups.
There are ten remote communities HUB works with which include: Attawapiskat, Fort, Albany, Kashechewan, Mooseny, Moose Factory, Pikangikum, Big Trout Lake, Sandy Lake, Kasabonika, and Sioux Lookout.
HUB equipped these communities with 10 Apple MacBooks and 10 Apple iPads and set up all 20 of those devices with 10 different learning modules that are on topics like financial literacy, drinking and driving, cannabis and driving, mindfulness, anger management, emotional resilience, and self esteem.
To determine what programming is needed within a community, HUB uses a co-designing method while working with either the community-based partners or the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. If a program is mandated by the Ministry, they may also mandate a specific topic (i.e., anger management). HUB uses this as a starting point and collaborates with the community to develop a curriculum and literature for the program.
Burkett describes this as a very collaborative process which isn’t purely a reflection of what HUB wants it to be. For programs that aren’t mandated, the topics come directly from the community. So in essence, a community can say they need a program on financial literacy or gender-based violence, and HUB will develop a curriculum rooted from the practical needs on the ground.
Burkett said that one of the main and most important areas of impact of their program is the diversion of youth out of the justice system. According to HUB’s 2020 impact report, over half of the youth HUB serves were referred to the program through a youth justice order or custody or detention.
The report also states that in 2020, there were over 1,400 youth and adults served with HUB’s program, adding up to over 2,000 hours of skill development. This averages out to 1.2 hours per youth.
Celebrating different learning styles
Burkett adds that many of these learning modules are built to be a transformative learning methodology, meaning they incorporate different types of learning in order to reach out to a variety of different learning styles among youth. This includes methods like mindfulness and visualizations, journaling, arts-based activities, problem solving, and scenario-based learning. HUB also uses approaches like talking circles, smudging, land-based practices, story telling, and peer-to-peer learning.
“We really try to provide different approaches to learning that I think provide youth with different avenues for exploring themselves, and hopefully help to create an enriched learning space for the young people taking the programming,” said Burkett.
Closing the digital gap among community organizations
Aside from wifi connection issues being a massive digital barrier, Burkett says another issue is with the digital resources available to many small organizations in the non-profit sector.
Generally, the way our business models are set up, it can be difficult to have state of the art hardware, or IT infrastructure,” said Burkett. “So with a lot of our partners, what we’re doing is also helping to bridge those gaps; we might be purchasing hardware for them, we might be training their staff on how to deliver digital based learning, which we offer for free as well. We might be consulting with them on how to transition their existing program to digital-based programming.”
Working with youth in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation
One of the Community Learning HUB’s recent partnerships is with Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services Corporation (NALSC), an organization based in Northern Ontario focused on providing legal services to the members of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. HUB is currently working to equip this community with their learning tools.
HUB works with youth intervention workers (or YI workers) from NALSC who are responsible for delivering programs to youth who live in the community. Oftentimes, that programming will be delivered through restorative justice circles that NALSC runs, as part of their legal services they offer across Northern Ontario. This approach involves having the offender and victim sit in a circle along with an Elder or an authority figure in the community. The practice focuses on allowing those involved in an incident to heal rather than punishing the offender for their crime.
“These are really remote communities, and there’s not a lot of access to services on them. There may not be a psychiatrist, or a doctor, or a social worker. So these youth intervention workers end up doing a lot of stuff in the community, and anytime they can have the support of a program really makes their job much more easy and helps connect the people, the youth of those communities, to accurate and reliable information,” said Burkett.
Another challenge is centred around working with marginalized youth who are resistant to being in HUB’s programs. “A lot of the youth aren’t there by choice — a lot of them have been mandated to complete the programming, or told by their parents to go or, told by the school they have to finish this program. So from the outset, there’s a lot of resistance,” she said.
A method used to reach around this initial resistance is by incorporating a level of playfulness and creativity in their modules according to Burkett. One of HUB’s guiding principles is to use play and creativity in their program design of their programs which are made specifically to engage youth. Burkett also adds that a lot of their content is also designed by young people.
Another way HUB tackles this barrier is by working with and training the facilitators who actually deliver their programs to the youth. “A lot of what we’re doing at HUB is training those facilitators and empowering them so that they’re able to create spaces that are more open and transformational and safe for the youth. We do that through things like our guest expert series where we have different professionals on to provide training,” said Burkett.
Looking ahead for HUB, Burkett said she wants to continue building its presence across the country as well as the impact they have on youth and the non-profits seeking to serve them. More than that, they want to stay relevant, to develop new content, and make sure that their programs and modules are speaking to the challenges youth face today.