Digital Literacy Practices among Immigrant Seniors (by Mehdi Babaei)

I learned how to use technology only after the age of 55. My experience of using technology was limited to texting through my mobile phone. The late time of immigration to Canada made me feel detached from my family and friends in my home country. So I began to learn how to use technology and digital devices to remain in touch with them in an easier and faster way… also, since I felt isolated in the new country, I found Internet as a tool to help me find new friends…”

The above lines are the translation of my informal conversation with a 60-year old immigrant senior. She added that as a housewife in her home country, her ‘literacy practices’ were limited to certain situations (e.g. reading pages of a cook book, or skimming the headings of the morning paper, etc.). In the new country, however, the strong feeling of being part of a ‘community’ made her learn how to use technology proactively. She has been not only in touch with her family and friends in her home country, but she has also found many friends in the new country, thanks to her engaging in digital practices. Now she views herself as digitally literate. Learning about her experiences made it clear to me that technology can positively impact on the life of this somehow neglected group of individuals–– seniors.

On the whole, the population of Canada is aging––a reality we cannot ignore as it is affecting many parts of our diverse society. In recent years, Québec has had the second largest (after Ontario) number of people aged 65 and older. In Québec, Montreal has become increasingly diverse with immigrants and refugees from various ethnicities. Once settled in the new country many immigrants become part of different communities or what Lave and Wenger call the “communities of practice” (1991). Individuals adopt certain subject positions in their communities of practice including family, colleagues, social groups, and so on. However, today there seems to be a shift in the way ‘a community’ is conceptualized ––a shift from the view of ‘community’ in its traditional sense which has been upgraded and promoted to the ‘digital community’.

When Lave and Wenger first introduced the concept of community of practice, they would probably imagine how their proposed concept could undergo significant changes thanks to the changing faces of ‘time’ and ‘space’ in our world. As for the ‘time’, there has been a huge rise in the number of people crossing geographical and sociocultural borders as a result of globalization. Owing to this growing awareness of the ongoing trends such as globalization and super-diversity, and the rapid emergence of societies with hybrid and dynamic features, many scholars in the fields of sociolinguistics, applied linguistics, and their subdivisions, have targeted the ‘border crossers’ in terms of their social mobility and lived experiences.

In their early years of residence, these border crossers–– and particularly those who come from the cultural and ethnic backgrounds different from that of the host society –– choose to flock together in their ethnic communities, either to alleviate the difficult situations they often face through their immigration process or develop skills and practices needed to start a new life. These ‘communities of practice’ could be a group of professionals who meet occasionally, for instance, to discuss their job prospects, a bunch of new mothers who share their experiences, a group of individuals who congregate to practice a religion or perform rituals, or a group of individuals who share their life experiences in the new country on social networks. And here is where I enter the second changing face of the world––the space.

The advances in digital technology have made the mobility of knowledge, linguistic resources, and communication much easier. It is no wonder that the “digital communities of practice” appeal to a large number of people, particularly young generation. These digital communities of practice can be of any form of online spaces from the groups on social networks (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIne, etc.) to other smaller ones created through the mobile apps (Viber, Telegarm Messengaer, LINE, or WeChat). Today, these online spaces––or the platforms for creating digital communities––entail several layers. There are, in fact, layers upon layers and these layers as sub-spaces can function differently and meaningfully. Therefore, a Facebook user can share posts with public, his friends or close friends, and simultaneously be active in several other secret and private Facebook groups.

The reason I am talking about these issues is that the senior lady I mentioned in the beginning of my post is part of a close group on Facebook whose members are all immigrant seniors, who practice a variety of literacies including English and French language learning, share books and articles on different topics, or even learn how to cope with certain health-related issues (through offering and receiving experience-based medical advice). As part of an open group, again on Facebook, they also share food recipes with other members of different cultures, a way to change their daily routine and make them feel needed and useful.

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Oftentimes it is the young generation, which is in the limelight when we talk about technology, digital world, and internet. The impact of technology on the older generation has either been given short shrift or has been under-researched. I would like to generate a discussion on the impact of technology on the life of immigrant seniors as, what I call, the ‘invisible participants’ of the digital communities of practice, what role digital literacies play in their life–– and whether ‘digital literacy’ is a necessity or advantage to this generation (I call them ‘invisible’ because the majority population would think of them as passive users or even digitally illiterate).

Yet there have been several initiatives around the world to promote digital and media literacy among seniors. For example, in Québec and Montreal, the Digital Literacy Project was initiated by the Atwater Library and Computer Center to help seniors “learn to express themselves, find new ways to talk about things important to them, and to help them build their own communities with digital tools,” through audio, blogging, media literacy, social media, and video. The question that has been left largely unexplored is how technology can help unpack the ways in which immigrant seniors participate in and negotiate the practices of the different online communities they belong to, informing their subjectivities and identities.

The contexts in which researchers conduct their study are rapidly changing. Digital communities have gained momentum and their participants have become diverse. Further sociolinguistic research can also elucidate how digital literacy can help us understand the lived experiences of immigrant seniors as the rising but forgotten participants of these communities. In the case of the senior woman in this blog, digital technology in general and internet in particular has helped her develop strategies of successful aging and cope with both the challenges of aging and the difficulties of immigration.



Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.













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