Actua’s Engage. Empower. Connect. (E2C) Project: Key Learnings from Pilots

February 8, 2022

We have all been spending way more time online these past two years and youth are no exception. Thankfully, the online world has become a place for youth to maintain and build social connections, express opinions and foster a sense of belonging while being away from their regular lives.

According to a recent study by Western University, children, on average, have had nearly six hours of screen time each day throughout the pandemic and this is likely an under-estimate based on what we have heard from parents and what I see at home with my own children. While these interactions can contribute to youth’s positive development and well-being, the internet can also be a place where youth fall victim to various online threats, including phishing, fraud, identity theft, bullying and exploitation. These risks are very real and can have devastating impacts on youth and their confidence to explore online. Luckily, there are many things we can do to help youth navigate these risks.

To help empower youth with the skills and confidence to navigate the online world safely, Actua launched a cyber empowerment initiative in 2019 with the financial support of Women and Gender Equality Canada. Since then we have seen a growing interest from the private sector to support this critical area of digital skill development and have secured additional partnerships from Enbridge and The Motorola Solutions Foundation.

Actua’s Engage. Empower. Connect. (E2C) project

Actua’s Engage. Empower. Connect (E2C) project seeks to build positive digital engagement and experiences for youth to feel empowered online. Our goal is to foster a cyber smart generation ready to embrace the challenges of the digital age. The E2C project builds on the foundation of Actua’s national coding and digital skills program and supports youth to understand how to critically assess online interactions, be proactive about online threats and use technology in innovative, healthy and safe ways.

Our work to date

Over the course of 2021, we designed and executed two pilot projects focused on empowering youth, and in particular girls, to participate in positive online interactions and identify and deal with a range of online risks and threats. These six-week-long programs were designed for youth in two different age groups (grades 5-7 and 8-10) and delivered by a small group of Actua’s network members. Each pilot program introduced participants to various cyber safety topics to develop awareness, understanding, skills and confidence through a mix of lessons, activities, games and discussion.

Pilot 2 Early Results

Youth participating in the E2C pilot two programs reported a very high level of satisfaction and regarded the program as a fun and valuable learning experience. At the end of the program, 91 per cent of participants who responded to our post-program survey said the program was “amazing” or “good” and reported feeling better prepared to:

  • identify information that shouldn’t be shared on the internet;
  • identify and use reliable sources of information online and offline;
  • help create safe and inclusive spaces online for others;
  • protect their privacy online; and
  • deal with online risks and threats like cyber scams and phishing.

What participants had to say:

I really liked the program and it was very beneficial. I think I learned a lot about cyber security. There were some very interesting points that I never knew and I really loved how some of the points were from the hacker’s perspective as well. It was overall a very good experience! Thank you.

– E2C Program Participant

I learned that, when I use social media, I shouldn’t display personal info. I knew about that, but the program really showed me why it matters and why I should do it.

– E2C Program Participant

I’m making sure my family and I use much stronger passwords after learning about them in the program. I will also change how much I post online – like youtube comments.

– E2C Program Participant

Key Learnings

Actua has always maintained a strong focus on equitable, inclusive, and relevant content when designing STEM programs, and the results from our E2C pilot evaluations re-emphasized just how vital these program elements really are. Key learnings from the pilot project included:

Digital Equality

We acknowledged early on that not all E2C program participants would have easy access to digital technologies and reliable broadband internet, so we set out to create flexible learning content that could be taught online, offline or in-person. This customized content became essential throughout both pilots as the pandemic continued to limit how network members delivered their programs and engaged youth —sometimes in person, sometimes remotely and sometimes both.

Age-appropriate Content

Research has long shown that relevant learning content is effective content. The more students can connect with the content and material, the more they’ll learn. Actua’s education team and E2C program instructors agreed that creating two program streams  (grades 5-7 and 8-10) was essential. It allowed instructors to initiate discussions focused on the unique challenges and opportunities these different age groups experience online, which kept the lessons relevant and relatable.

Instructor Training and Preparedness

Instructors are integral to the success of our programs, so helping them feel prepared is top of mind in any program design. Instructor training was particularly important for the E2C pilot programs because instructors were encouraged to adopt a discussion-based approach to content delivery. This approach prioritizes two-way conversation over lecturing or reading and reviewing. It was crucial E2C instructors felt adequately prepared, supported and confident to facilitate the meaningful and effective discussions necessary for program success.

Next Steps

Over the next year, Actua will continue adapting and transforming its E2C program based on lessons learned. We also plan to release more resources and activities to help parents and educators empower youth with a cyber smart mindset. In the meantime, you can check out our Cyber Smart Framework, which helps educators and families understand the key concepts and ideas involved in staying safe online, and our existing curated library of online learning resources on online safety.