Complicating Access: Digital Inequality and Adult Learning in a Public Access Computing Space


  • Suzanne Smythe Simon Fraser University
  • Sherry Breshears Simon Fraser University


Keywords, adult learning, digital equity, policy ethnography, public computing, Canada



Access is often defined in digital inclusion policy as the potential, if not the means, to access an Internet connection. This simple or ‘laissez-faire’ approach to digital access excludes many of the adults who are also the constituents of adult literacy education programs, suggesting the need for adult educators to attend closely to the entanglements of digital equity and adult learning. Combining methods of critical policy analysis with participant observation of adults’ experiences of digital access and learning in a public setting, the study identifies tensions between public sites for computing learning and the privatization of access, between ‘basic skills’ and critical pedagogies of production, and between the ‘model users’ for whom digital policies and the Internet are designed and the actual experiences of those who are on the margins of access. These trouble spots provoke new challenges and possibilities for a reinvigoration of public computing as new sites for adult learning.




Author Biography

Suzanne Smythe, Simon Fraser University

Assistant Professor

Adult literacy/Adult education

Faculty of Education

Simon Fraser University


Attar, D. (2005). Dismay and disappointment: Perspectives of inexperienced adult learners on becoming webpage readers. International Journal of Educational Research, 43(7-8), 495-508.

Ball, S. J. (2012). Global education, inc: New policy networks and the neoliberal imaginary. London: Routledge.

Bynner, J., Reder, S., Parsons, S., & Strawn, C. (2010). The three divides: The digital divide and its relation to basic skills and employment in Portland, USA and London, England. London, UK: National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy. Retrieved from database.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (2012, April 6). Ottawa cuts CAP public web access funding. CBC News Online.

City of Vancouver. (2013). City of Vancouver Digital Strategy. Vancouver, BC: Author.

Flyvbjerg, B. (1998). Rationality and power: Democracy in practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five misunderstandings about case-study research. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2), 219-245. doi:10.1177/1077800405284363

Gatt, C., & Infold, T. (2013). From description to correspondence: Anthropology in real time. In W. Gunn, T. Otto, Smith & Rachel Charlotte (Eds.), Design anthropology: Theory and practice (pp. 139). London: Bloomsbury.

Geist, M. (2014, It's almost here: Why the Canadian Digital Strategy Takes Shape with Budget 2014.

Gilbert, M. (2010). Theorizing digital and urban inequalities. Information, Communication & Society, 13(7), 1000-1018. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2010.499954

Government of Canada. (2007). Canada's new government ensures support for the community access program. Retrieved January 23, 2016, from

Haight, M., Quan-Haase, A., & Corbett, B. A. (2014). Revisiting the digital divide in Canada: The impact of demographic factors on access to the internet, level of online activity, and social networking site usage. Information, Communication & Society, 17(4), 503-519. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2014.891633

Hamilton, M. (2012). Literacy and the politics of representation. London: Routledge.

Industry Canada. (2010). Final evaluation of the community access program. Ottawa, Canada: Industry Canada.

Industry Canada. (2015). Digital Canada 150. Ottawa, ON: Industry Canada Web Services.

Kirkeby, I. M. (2011). Transferable knowledge: An interview with Bent Flyvbjerg. Architectural Research Quarterly, 15, 9 - 14.

Larsen, M., & Beech, J. (2014). Spatial theorizing in comparative and international education research. Comparative Education Review, 58(2), 191-214. Retrieved from

Law, J., & Singleton, V. (2013). ANT and politics: Working in and on the world Springer Science & Business Media B.V. doi:10.1007/s11133-013-9263-7

Leander, K. (November 5 - 6, 2009). Studying and designing for adult literacy learners on the move: What's missing from the 'network' metaphor? Summit on the Future of Adult Education in the New Digital World, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond VA.

Matzat, U., & Sadowski, B. (2012). Does the “Do-it-yourself approach” reduce digital inequality? evidence of self-learning of digital skills. Information Society, 28(1), 1-12. doi:10.1080/01972243.2011.629023

Ministry of Employment and Skill Development Canada. (2014). Canada job grant. Retrieved from:

Mirchandani, K., Ng, R., Sangha, J., Rawlings, T., & Coloma-Moya, N. (2005). Ambivalent learning: Gendered and racialized barriers to computer acces for women garment workers. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 19(2), 14 - 24.

Moll, M. (2012). A brief history of the community access program: From community economic development to social cohesion to digital divide. In A. Clement, M. Gurstein, G. Longford, M. Moll & L. R. Shade (Eds.), Connecting Canadians: Investigations in community informatics (pp. 485 - 490) University of Athabasca Press.

Mossberger, K., Tolbert, C., & Franko, W. (2013).

Digital cities: The internet and the geography of opportunity.

New York: Oxford University Press.

Public Information Advocacy Centre. (2015). No consumer left behind: A Canadian affordability framework for communications services in a digital age. Ottawa. ON: Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Reder, S. (2012). The longitudinal study of adult learning: Challenging assumptions. Research Brief: Quebec Centre for Literacy Summer Institute, Montreal, Quebec.

Robinson, L., Cotten, S. R., Ono, H., Quan-Haase, A., Mesch, G., Chen, W., et al. (2015). Digital inequalities and why they matter. Information, Communication & Society, 18(5), 569-582.


Selwyn, N. (2004). Reconsidering political and popular understandings of the digital divide. New Media & Society, 6(3), 341-362. Retrieved from

Selwyn, N. (2010). The 'new' connectivities of digital education. In M. Apple, S. J. Ball & L. A. Gandin (Eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Education (pp. 90 - 102). London: Routledge.

Selwyn, N. (2012). Ten suggestions for improving academic research in education and technology. Learning, Media & Technology, 37(3), 213-219. doi:10.1080/17439884.2012.680213

Statistics Canada. (2013). The Daily: Individual internet use and e-commerce 2012: Author.

Stevenson, S. (2009). Digital divide: A discursive move away from the real inequities. Information Society, 25(1), 1-22. doi:10.1080/01972240802587539

van Deursen, A.J.M. & van Dijk, J.A.G.M. (2014). The digital divide shifts to differences in usage. New Media & Society, 16(3), 507-526. doi:10.1177/1461444813487959

van Dijk, J. A. G. M. (2006). Digital divide research, achievements and shortcomings. Poetics, 34(4), 221-235. doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2006.05.004

Wali, A. (2010). Ethnography for the digital age: American Anthropologist, 112(1), 147-148. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01204.x

Warschauer, M., Knobel, M., & Stone, L. (2004). Technology and equity in schooling: Deconstructing the digital divide. Educational Policy, 18(4), 562-588. doi:10.1177/0895904804266469

Weaver-Hightower, M. (2008). An ecology metaphor for educational policy analysis: A call to complexity. Educational Researcher, 37(3), 153 - 157. Retrieved from:

Wedel, J. R., & Feldman, G. (2005). Why an anthropology of public policy? Anthropology Today, 21(1), 1-2. doi:10.1111/j.0268-540X.2005.00321.x

Zuckerberg, M. (2015). Freebasics protects net neutrality. The Times of India. Retrieved from:




How to Cite

Smythe, S., & Breshears, S. (2017). Complicating Access: Digital Inequality and Adult Learning in a Public Access Computing Space. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 29(1), 67–81. Retrieved from