From scanning paper documents to searching for available electronic substitutes, in 2020, adult literacy instructors scrambled to digitize their teaching manuals and tools. A sector with a long history of relying upon binders and books on shelves struggled to avail itself of quality digital teaching resources, and the AlphaPlus team discovered the extent of the challenge.
“During the pandemic, we noticed instructors’ difficulties with getting content and resources to learners electronically. At the same time, we realized the potential to leverage technology to open up more equitable access to free, quality literacy and numeracy resources,” explains Christine Pinsent-Johnson, policy and research specialist in education and technology at AlphaPlus. “We started experimenting with several solutions, including creating and curating online resources through HyperDocs. However, the response told us we needed a different, more collaborative approach.”
Christine and her colleague Guylaine Vinet, organizational development specialist in education and technology, started exploring the idea of open educational resources. While well equipped for digital library building — Christine as a researcher and Guylaine as a librarian — they recognized the value of forming a working group to shape their project’s scope, approach and contents.
“We started with a basic idea and knew we needed user guidance regarding the project’s viability, format choices, how we should organize materials and the relevance and usefulness of what we were assembling,” says Guylaine. “For educators to use the resource, we needed to know what works best for them.”
Christine and Guylaine assembled a group of instructors from school boards and community groups, representing urban and rural communities across the province. Members work in program areas ranging from workforce development to academic, with diverse learner groups.
The working group first met in May 2022 and started by forming terms of reference and the optimal formats for resource curation and sharing: Google Drive and a microsite. In June, the group established criteria for resources to be included. For example, materials must:
Be free and ad-free.
With the scope defined and a full suite of parameters established, Christine and Guylaine began their search of over 100 collections and lists from Canada, the U.K. and Australia. They gathered resources that met the criteria and involved the working group in content review. One working group participant, Karin Meinzer, instructor for the West Centre at PTP Adult Learning and Employment Programs, reflects on her experience:
“As an instructor, there aren’t many day-to-day opportunities to connect directly with colleagues in the field. I always like to say yes to projects such as this because of the exposure it gives me to new ideas and things happening outside my tiny sphere!”
Open educational resource prototype now available
The result of the working group’s efforts to date is not simply another collection of resource links but a fully vetted collection of workbooks, modules and activities that address a full range of instructional topics. A prototype is now available covering the first two of 10 topics the working group identified: (1) reading instruction workbooks and modules and (2) general knowledge content. The prototype will be delivered in English, with research underway to explore a French option.
“This working group has created a good opportunity for educators to get together, talk with each other over a shared interest and produce a body of work. All educators in Ontario will soon be able to access a library of open educational resources ready to download, use and save,” says Christine. “Having input from the working group made us more confident about the end product, and the success of this experience means we will be looking for working groups in the future.”
Let us know what you think of our open educational resources prototype. Do you have suggestions for additional resources? Would you like to participate in future steps as an educator advisor? Get in touch with us.
Last spring, did you scramble to figure out ways for learners to access instructional materials from paper files, workbooks, readers and binders? We learned that paper packets were produced for some learners, especially those who didn’t have the right device, enough data and experience to access instructional activities on a computer. We also learned that the most commonly used mode for communication and instruction was email. This got us thinking about ways to support a transition from paper-based to digital instructional materials.
We think HyperDocs are a solution!
A HyperDoc is a carefully planned use of Google Docs or Slides to organize content and instructional activities using text, audio, video, images and, of course, hyperlinks. Think of it as an interactive and self-contained learning module. You can also use MS Word and PowerPoint, but most available HyperDocs are developed using Google applications.
That’s the other amazing thing about HyperDocs: they’re widely available online for free for anyone to use! They’re an open education resource (OER) supported by a vibrant community of K-12 teachers and a growing number of adult educators.
HyperDocs can be short, specific lessons, like introduction to fractions and their uses. They can also be more general and then applied to different topics and subjects, like the inquiry template. They can even be a comprehensive collection of learning activities, resources and ideas that you can use to develop smaller lessons or modules, like digital storytelling ideas.
It’s your choice. Two of the above examples were created with Google Docs, and one used Google Slides. After experimenting with both, we think Slides offer a few more features for LBS learners and educators and are easier to navigate. They work well on Zoom when sharing your screen or can be projected on a screen during class. You can use the speaker notes to provide additional instructions and information. And learners can use the speaker notes to record themselves and practise reading text on a slide aloud.
Whatever Google application you choose to use, you can integrate Google Forms to create quizzes and other activities, and use accessibility features and add-ons like text-to-speech or recording tools.
Once more regular in-person routines resume and you’re able to provide direct support, HyperDocs can become a way to fully integrate initial digital literacy development directly with literacy and numeracy development. In addition, with access to various modules through shared Google Drives, learners can continue using the activities if they have to miss a tutoring session or be away from class.
Yes, creating a single HyperDoc does take time and effort. But what if it’s not all up to you to do the work? What if we could build a collection — sort of a crowdsourced effort? This is something we’re currently exploring.
To start, we curated a collection of instructional materials that could be used in HyperDocs or on their own. We then built a sample HyperDoc for learners using one of the reading resources from the collection. Imagine a more comprehensive collection with different topics that you could access, modify and put to use!
Based on preliminary feedback, instructors want to learn more about HyperDocs for learners.
We’ve developed a small website called From binders to Hyperdocs, where you’ll find all of the resources we mentioned and many more, including a series of professional learning HyperDocs to help you transition from paper-based planning to digital. We’ve also included a feedback form. The work continues this year, so let us know what you’d like to see!
AlphaPlus recently released a survey report that looked at how people working in Ontario’s Literacy and Basic Skills (LBS) system responded to COVID-19 shutdowns in the spring of 2020. Although we weren’t surprised by the main findings, we’re concerned about the inequities in the LBS system. Currently, it’s unable to ensure all learners have the same opportunities to develop digital skills to support their goals and to access vital services that have moved online.
A total of 368 surveys were completed from June 11 to 28 (332 English and 36 French). This is a convenience sample and can’t be used to make generalizations about the experiences and perspectives of all LBS staff and volunteers. However, the response rate for both the English and French surveys was very strong and supports the identification of consistent concerns, choices and priorities.
Many adult learners didn’t have access to household connections or a computer. Respondents estimated that just under half of learners (45%) likely had household internet access. One-quarter (27%) had limited access, relying on cell phones and limited data plans. On average, only 13% of respondents stated they purchased data and/or laptops for learners.
In addition to a lack of digital access, respondents stated they most often worked with learners who had low incomes, learning disabilities and mental health challenges, were racialized and over 65. Intersectional challenges shaped by poverty mean LBS learners are particularly vulnerable to the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19. Pointing to the challenges, one-third of respondents said they prioritized supporting learners over instruction, more so in community programs.
All respondents demonstrated their ability to adapt (on average, they used five different methods of communication and instruction) and respond to learners who likely encountered multiple challenges and stressors (on average, respondents indicated they worked with at least five different learner groups).
The readiness of sectors and delivery agencies to make a sudden shift to remote instruction varied across the LBS system. Uneven access to targeted and accessible professional training and educational technology tools, in addition to learners’ limited access, restricted the efforts of some programs to pivot to remote delivery more than others.
Respondents in community and school board programs encountered more challenges compared to their colleagues in francophone and especially college programs. They were far more likely to rely on paper-based instruction and phone calls. In addition, their tendency to access a higher number of professional supports indicates they had to piece together their own professional development from several sources.
College respondents, on the other hand, had institution-based access to dedicated teaching and learning centres. They were also far more likely to mobilize the use of comprehensive online educational technology tools, like a learning management system (LMS), and to continue the same learning program they had in place, using new tools and technology, before the shift to remote delivery.
Francophone respondents may have been better prepared to make the shift to remote delivery, being far more likely to have seamless technology integration before the provincial shutdown. This may be due to their more prevalent use of e-Channel (F@D).
The initial lack of communication, guidance and responsiveness from senior ministry officials exacerbated technology inequities. Respondents said their top priority was addressing issues such as registering and assessing learners and finding ways to get devices and data to learners, even more so than professional supports.
While inequities were apparent before the spring, the need for digital access and skill development opportunities was accelerated due to the rapid shift to virtual services, supports and social connection. Digital access and skill development is now an imperative for LBS learners and no longer an enhancement or choice, as healthcare providers, government agencies, income assistance and community supports have moved primarily or entirely online. All of us here at AlphaPlus champion the use of technology in adult education to create equity and access to learning, and to enhance learning experiences. All learners need digital connectivity and devices for learning, and educators need more equitable opportunities to engage in curriculum and professional development that’s aligned with their sector, local priorities and learners. When educators and organizations incorporate relevant technology into adult education curriculum and program administration, they can increase relevance, responsiveness and reach.
Literacy has never been just about reading and writing, it’s also about access to information, civic participation, and opportunities. Digital access has become intertwined with literacy, especially during this public health crisis when so many of our activities and services have moved to online-only points of access.
The ongoing crisis has laid bare the digital inequities that have long existed in Canada where income, age, race, education level, and where you live impact digital connectivity, online engagement and opportunities to leverage expertise. It is not surprising that the same socio-economic categories align with less literacy proficiency. About 14-20% of Canadians are considered to have very low levels of proficiency across literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving. Canada has a wider than average gap between the highest and lowest levels.
We are learning to use new technologies and meeting new and increasing online demands. But many Canadians lost the tenuous access and learning opportunities they had. While some targeted and mostly community led measures were introduced, we lack a comprehensive and coordinated approach to digital and literacy equity. As we continue to ignore issues of equitable connectivity, online engagement and opportunities, Canada’s digital divide and its literacy divide widens.
Universal and affordable access is a first step because many simply cannot afford it (42% of Canadians and 39% of Ontarians with the lowest incomes don’t have a household connection). Imagine if you had to decide which essential basic needs you cannot afford so you can pay for your internet access. Low-income households spend a higher percentage of their budget on internet access and sacrifice other basic needs to pay for it, particularly if they have school-age children.
They also rely more on cell phones and limited data plans, which are carefully preserved and supplemented with public WiFi. This means they work harder to get online and spend less time online. For many, the combination of limited connectivity and curtailed online activity means there are fewer opportunities to build comprehensive digital repertoires. Many are less able to meet new and more complex digital demands in their lives and at work.
The ripple effects of digital inequity reach beyond the individual. People are not able to take full advantage of online government services; they aren’t able to leverage skills and knowledge to adapt to major personal and economic changes; and they aren’t able to participate in consumer research or government consultations. Government initiatives are less effective, and businesses have incomplete understandings of their customers. Digital exclusion is also socio-economic and civic exclusion.
Despite declaring internet access a basic right in 2016, Canada still does not have universal and affordable internet access. In a United Nations ranking of digital access, use and skills, Canada is losing ground, from its highest ranking of 21st to 29th. The Brookfield Institute concluded in 2017 that “Canada appears to lag behind significantly in promoting it”. Open Media reminded us only a couple of weeks ago that the $1.7 billion Universal Broadband Fund was first promised well before the pandemic and has still not been opened.
The ways many people supplemented limited and precarious access disappeared when public spaces closed. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, hundreds of thousands of low-income adults – including newcomers, people with precarious jobs or social assistance, and those with disabilities – were accessing the Internet and developing digital skills in libraries and adult learning centres for language, literacy, secondary credentials, professional certification, and employment.
At the same time, the need for a broad range of digital and literacy skills dramatically increased. In a recent survey we conducted, Ontario Literacy and Basic Skills programs estimated that less than 50% of their clients have household Internet access during the ongoing crisis. Nearly all adult basic skills programs began offering remote learning in mid-March. Many relied on texting, phone calls and mail for instruction and outreach.
The shutdown demonstrated that patchwork programs without long-term policies that ensure all Canadians can fully engage in digital spaces, with household access and devices, simply don’t work. Digital access and literacy inequalities need to be addressed together to prevent the divide from widening farther. Now is the time to act on the big shifts in people’s understanding of what the digital divide looks like and what it means as a result of the crisis.
Read more about the digital divide and experiences of limited and seamless access: https://alphaplus.ca/download/the-impact-of-ontarios-digital-divide/
Opinion written by Christine Pinsent-Johnson, Organizational Development Consultant with AlphaPlus and Matthias Sturm, former Senior e-Learning and Research Consultant with AlphaPlus and currently a PhD candidate researching digital equity at Simon Fraser University.