Killam Accelerator Award recipient Rob McMahon

Community-led, inclusive research key to success says Killam Accelerator Award recipient Rob McMahon

Donna McKinnon - 23 October 2020


Digital literacy – the ability to use and develop digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) – is threaded throughout all aspects of society. From relationships, to accessing health, education and job information, all the way to participation in policy development and public discourse, digital literacy is an essential tool for the 21st century.

In northern and Indigenous communities, digital literacy can also reflect and support various aspects of self-determination, says Rob McMahon, who has been researching digital literacy and innovation with these communities for more than a decade.

Small and geographically dispersed communities are typically underserved by commercial telecommunication companies, resulting in improvised, cooperative solutions.

“Communities have done amazing things in terms of digital innovation,” says McMahon. “I’m seeing lots of interesting projects developing in rural, Northern and Indigenous communities across Canada – from rolling out their own fibre optic networks, to developing virtual/augmented reality stories, to building and managing health, education and language applications.”

McMahon, an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Media and Technology Studies Unit, is the recipient of the prestigious 2020 Killam Accelerator Award. McMahon is one of only two awarded this prize at the University of Alberta, valued at $75,000 per year for three years. Established in 2018, the Killam Accelerator Award is granted to early career faculty members for their exceptional research output and the impact of their scholarly activity.

Prior to coming to Arts, McMahon was an instructor with the Faculty of Extension’s Master of Arts in Communication and Technology (MACT) program, now situated in the Media and Technology Studies Unit.

Community-based participatory research informs and drives McMahon’s inclusive practice as a researcher, public policy consultant, and as an educator. As a non-Indigenous scholar, McMahon says that community engagement is not something that comes before the ‘real’ work of research, but rather is at the core of research. Trust and reciprocity – building and sustaining relationships – takes time and effort on the part of all involved.

Nothing about us, without us

“Indigenous scholars and community members have pointed out, there should be nothing about us, without us,” explains McMahon. “Unfortunately, research has to contend with the ongoing and present impacts of colonization. Like other aspects of Canadian society, research reflects structures, biases and practices rooted in colonialism, and involving Indigenous community members in research helps identify and counter these problematic processes.”

Prior to earning a PhD from Simon Fraser University in 2013, McMahon worked as a journalist, focused on intercultural communications informed by what he calls his ‘duty as a journalist’ to accurately represent the positions of people from different backgrounds and worldviews. As digital technologies became more widespread, McMahon became interested in how these technologies and the underlying infrastructures of connectivity are used as resources for self-representation, including governance practices, data sovereignty, and language revitalization.

McMahon refocused his PhD work, and visited communities in Northern Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec to learn about the many ways Indigenous peoples living there have shaped communications media – from community radio and television, to film and now digital media.

We should do a much better job of enabling and supporting their work

“In some of the small population, fly-in communities in Canada, Indigenous communities were actually rolling out wires, setting up their own Internet service providers and cellular networks,” says McMahon. “I am constantly inspired by their creative work, and while these innovators often face structural barriers such as limited access to devices or connectivity, expensive and limited data caps, and other challenges, they are coming up with exciting projects. I think that we should do a much better job of enabling and supporting their work. Rather than acting as a neutral observer, I’m interested in exploring how we can create the conditions that support people in doing the work they're already doing. It’s been a fascinating area of research.”

While much of McMahon’s work involves telecommunications, he admits to no formal technical training in the area, relying instead on the expertise of his partners and colleagues.

“I work as a kind of translator with the technicians on the ground,” he says. “I understand some of the technical concepts involved, but mostly I am interested in how technical arrangements influence policy and practice, and vice-versa. Different technical configurations have direct impacts on the ways we live our lives and shape our societies – I am fascinated with that interplay.”

In 2017, McMahon was part of a pilot project with the Piikani First Nation in southern Alberta to set up a three day digital literacy summer camp for teens to learn about and record their Blackfoot heritage. After learning basic camera and interviewing skills, high school students take part in a land-based camp to film the Elders in conversation, as well as traditional activities, games, sports, stories, drumming, songs, cooking, and tipi-raising.

“They're practicing technical skills, but they're also hearing from the Elders,” says McMahon. “And then at the end of the day, the community has these recordings.”

The digital literacy camp, now in its fourth year, has pivoted to distance learning because of COVID-19. The Killam Accelerator Award, McMahon says, will ensure the continuation of the camp as well as other research projects, including DigitalNWT, which employs a co-creational approach to research and curriculum development, to strengthen the foundation of community-based digital literacy in the Northwest Territories. This includes showcasing NWT-based digital innovators and tracking connectivity using a free internet performance test.

Support from the Killam Accelerator Award will also allow his team to deepen his connections with national and international researchers and community groups. He cites examples of artists using virtual reality to bring traditional stories into the digital world and, in Alaska, Indigenous hunters using text messages to notify each other about whale sightings. “It’s a cool use of technology,” he says, adding that the diversity of digital innovation in these communities is endlessly fascinating.

“Indigenous peoples around the world are engaged in exciting technology development initiatives, in areas including digital literacy, policy development, and digital innovation,” says McMahon. “Our team is connecting with like-minded groups in places like the U.S., Mexico, Borneo, Norway and Aotearoa (New Zealand). I think a positive outcome of the Killam Award would be the ability to build and strengthen these relationships, and explore ways to conduct research and education projects together.”