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(originally posted on the New Canadian Media site)

When it comes to technology use, immigrants to Canada are well ahead of settlement agencies. It’s a reality the sector needs to face. Organizations can and need to incorporate technology more effectively to serve their clients.

In 2007, Statistics Canada reported that 78 per cent of immigrants who arrived in Canada during the last 10 years used the Internet – a higher percentage than the 75 per cent of people born in Canada who used it.

Yahoo! Canada confirms that trend in its 2014 Digital Acculturation study, which found that, “When it comes to media preferences, new Canadians are digital first, with a particular focus on mobile devices.”

New Canadians are actively using niche social networks, apps and services that are not necessarily mainstream in Canada. They’re coming from countries where Internet growth is explosive, faster, cheaper and where online learning is becoming popular.

Settlement agencies need to explore technology use in source countries like China, India and the Phillipines, to understand the technology profile of newcomers to Canada. In many cases, agencies can start with their own staff members – certainly, they should be asking their clients.

Opportunity for settlement agencies, ethnic media

With the pre-eminence of social media, word of mouth information about immigration and settlement is increasingly shared online. Tens of thousands of newcomers share information and orientation on social networking sites like:

These websites are in English, but there are many more in other languages.

We already know that a relatively small percentage of newcomers access mainstream in-person government and community services. Online social networking sites mean they’re potentially bypassing these services even more.

If newcomers continue to bypass settlement agencies, how informed will they be when it comes to their settlement needs? How effective are newcomer networks and word of mouth? The results are mixed.

In 2010, the Toronto Immigrant Employment Data Initiative found that “immigrants who found their current job through personal initiative, family or friends, and Canada employment centres had the lowest average hourly wages.”

This is not to say that the newcomer networks are not without value or importance. Far from it.

But, it makes me wonder how we can better ensure newcomers’ digital literacy results in better access to settlement information and resources.

There is a role here for settlement agencies. There is also a role for ethnic media. Research has shown that ethnic media can do a much better job informing and orienting newcomers to life in Canada.

Private immigrant-serving businesses and organizations are also looking at how to best use technology and social media to provide services.

In a recent article, Vancouver-based Will Tao wrote about his impressions of how technology is impacting services provided by Canadian immigration lawyers. He notes a few specific trends that should be examined:

  1. Increased use of technology to gather information from potential clients in advance of serving them
  2. Increased use of technology and applications to manage communication
  3. Increased use of technology as a means of establishing communication with, and serving, clients in other cities/countries around the world (i.e. pre-arrival services)

Use of technology

While online service is still in its infancy in the settlement sector, there are great examples of innovative agencies offering online and hybrid services across the country.

Organizations like Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, COSTI Immigrant Services, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, CultureLink, South Okanagan Immigrant and Community Services,Canadian Immigrant Integration Program, North York Community House and Catholic Crosscultural Services have been offering online services and courses in recent years with much success.

In fact, CultureLink recently completed its first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for newcomers: Create an Expert LinkedIn Profile for Job Search. The pilot course had 2,000 participants.

Last week, ISANS launched its Settlement Online Pre-Arrival service. It’s an important step forward in providing settlement resources online, before newcomers arrive.

The more I speak to individual settlement workers, the more pockets of service innovation I find.

They’re using this tech to serve their clients. They want to do more. However, we’re not harnessing their knowledge and experience to create better organizational systems, or to create policies to drive innovation around the possibilities technology offers as a means of providing service.

We’re certainly not effectively mining and sharing their learning and knowledge across the sector.

As we imagine the settlement agency of the future, we first need to better understand the digital and settlement literacy of immigrants to Canada. It’s time to start asking them how they’re using technology, how they want to interact with us, and where technology fits into this.

For immigrant-serving agencies, the future is right in front of them. The answers lie with their clients.

(image from WOCinTech ChatCC BY 2.0)

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