For Anita Dhanjal, a community literacy worker at LAMP Community Health Centre, teaching literacy and basic skills has changed significantly from when she started at the organization five years ago. Today’s learners operate in a very different digital world and have a strong appetite for learning new things.

Anita’s role at LAMP, which serves community members in South Etobicoke and South Mississauga, includes supervising and tutoring adult learning classes. Anita also covers tutors’ classes when they’re away and manages the program’s administration, including reporting to the Ministry of Labour.

“When I started in this role, we relied on GCFglobal.org for our curriculum, printing off worksheets as we went,” says Anita, describing how her work at LAMP has been transformed since 2019. “Today, both instructors and learners are moving forward with the technology we were forced to learn during the pandemic. Now, our learners are constantly asking to learn new skills and new ways of using existing technology and tools.”

Learning new ways to use digital tools in teaching

To prepare to answer learners’ questions and learn alongside them, Anita continuously seeks applicable training opportunities. In 2023, she participated in the AlphaPlus Building Digital Skills training series, designed to help literacy educators sharpen and apply digital creation and collaboration skills. Starting in the spring with the first series, which focused on using Google Workspace, Anita followed up in the fall with the second series on Microsoft Office 365.

“Over the course of these trainings, I learned about many free tools within Google and Microsoft that I can use in teaching and program administration. Free is helpful because some of our learners aren’t able to pay for subscriptions,” explains Anita. “From Forms to OneNote to learning how to use Sway for reading and writing classes, I discovered amazing new tools — and tools that can do much more than I had realized. It was fun to see what we could get from the training and what we could use to teach our learners.”

Starting with the basics, building confidence

Anita explains that the LAMP approach to adult literacy is to start with the basics and build confidence, keeping learners engaged by catering to their curiosity and topics of interest. Each week, they review what was discussed the week before and the new skills learners want to acquire.

“If they want to learn OneNote, we’ll have that ready for them. Google is everywhere, so they want to know all about it. These are applications that people want to learn and use,” says Anita. “We were able to apply all of the little tips and tricks we learned in the AlphaPlus training with our learners, giving them bites of everything they’re curious about. We’ve also noticed that learners are excited to help one another use digital tools. That’s what we want: for the experience to be creative and interactive, helping learners to navigate and use digital technology to communicate and collaborate.”

Next steps: Continue exploring how teachers can use digital workspaces

In the coming months, Anita will continue to use and teach what she learned in 2023. She’s already started to use digital forms for assessments and is evaluating how to support tutors with additional resources. She’ll continue to explore learners’ areas of interest, paying particular attention to their desire to learn on smartphones.

“These training series have opened access to learning, information, advice and resources. Any application we learn gives us the confidence to use it, teach it and then learn other things. Learning all the time is how we get better at our jobs.”

Would you like to build confidence in using digital technology in your teaching? Register for AlphaPlus training. The upcoming series includes sessions on artificial intelligence, accessibility and a return to Microsoft Office 365.

Can you imagine starting a new role in a new sector and then discovering an organization entirely dedicated to supporting you?

Janet Oettgen transitioned to the Literacy and Basic Skills (LBS) sector from a career in taxation and banking.  After deciding to change careers and completing her education in social work, Janet’s path led her to the position of Program Coordinator/Instructor for the Niagara West Adult Learning Centre.

“When I started in May 2021, our technology was in disarray. Lacking comfort and knowledge of online platforms, our tutors and learners were almost inactive,” explains Janet. “Two of us were brand new to the organization, and our third staff member, although here for a long time, had limited knowledge of online technology and social media.  We were using the personal account of someone who had left our organization six years ago to access our Facebook page!”

Getting one-to-one coaching support and learning in a group format

Being new to the organization and adult literacy, Janet was eager for training. She attended AlphaPlus Virtual Showcases, where she learned about new systems and tools, and how people in adult literacy were using them. A few months later, Janet started getting one-to-one support from AlphaPlus technology coach Monika Jankowska-Pacyna.

“The Learning Centre staff members were trying to find their way around the systems in place, what accounts they had, how to get into them, managing their email interface, sharing files and teaching resources, and more,” says Monika. “We started by discussing the team’s hopes and needs and decided to try to shift the organization to Google Workspace and Google Apps. I helped Janet with processes, setup, transferring data and emails, website redesign and setting up tools like Canva, YouTube, Google Calendar, Classroom, and Forms.”

Over time, Janet worked with Monika and AlphaPlus Executive Director Alan Cherwinski to build a new, easier-to-maintain website using Google Sites. She regained control of the Learning Centre’s existing Google for Nonprofits and email accounts, and established digital security procedures.

“I’m comfortable with technology, but there were so many things we needed to pull together, and I wouldn’t have known where to start on my own. In meetings with Monika and Alan, we figured out a logical, step-by-step process that wasn’t stressful or overwhelming,” says Janet. “I also continued attending Showcases, which helped me get oriented to the adult literacy sector and see what people are doing, their learners’ needs, and what is working. What I learned at these events also gave me the vocabulary needed to request funding for our centre.”

Continuing her learning journey and connecting with peers

Taking full advantage of the AlphaPlus support and services suite, Janet also participated in Educator Network programs such as Gabfests and Makerspace, exploring ideas, picking up tools and tips, and forming connections with peers.

“Each AlphaPlus offering addresses specific needs with intention and excellence. They also connect you with people in other regions who are willing to share,” explains Janet. “For example, I connected with a peer in the Kitchener/Cambridge area who shared many of her digital forms and activities. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I could make her tools my own, and I now have a model for what I can create in the future.”

Having sorted out foundational elements like the organization’s digital workspace and communications, Janet went deeper into using digital tools for teaching and program administration. She has conducted a community needs analysis using Google Forms, digitized learning activities, and automated learner follow-ups and closures. As a result, processes are simpler for learners, and the Learning Centre has obtained more complete data.

 Next steps: for technology integration in adult literacy program delivery

Janet’s next steps include digitizing learner files and participating in an upcoming digital workspace training to prepare to further automate and streamline processes. The Centre’s new office administrator is now getting coaching from Monika to take over responsibilities so Janet can spend time in the community making connections that will bring in learners.

“There is enough complexity in our sector, so why not get help simplifying what we can?  From running programs to attracting learners, if you have systems in place that help you to do the work without spending lots of money, that’s half the battle,” says Janet. “Before working with AlphaPlus, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Now, we have regained our autonomy and can communicate at the snap of a finger.”

The AlphaPlus team is invaluable and second to none. The foundation of adult literacy is empowering, educating and equipping — AlphaPlus empowers, educates, and equips us to serve learners better.

Janet Oettgen, Program Coordinator/Instructor for the Niagara West Adult Learning Centre

Coaching can be a great starting point for unraveling your literacy program’s technology challenges and learning more about how AlphaPlus can support you. New coaching spots are now available, so contact us to secure your spot.

What could you create if you stepped back from your day-to-day teaching routine? What could be possible if you gave yourself time to celebrate creativity in teaching? Literacy educator Lori Armstrong found out her answers to these questions at the AlphaPlus Makerspace.

Lori has worked in countries including Canada, China, Ecuador, Egypt and Colombia — with teaching experiences spanning kindergarten, high school and adult literacy. Over the last eight years, Lori has focused on adult education, and in 2020, she returned to her hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Joining her peers in a Makerspace

While working in her role as a computer instructor for the Thunder Bay Literacy Group, Lori was trying to figure out easy-to-use and consistent technology tools for her adult learners. She discovered and joined the AlphaPlus Educator Network. “I loved the format of regular meetings with peers to discuss the sharing, instruction and good use of technology,” says Lori. “So, the next year, when I was invited to join Makerspace, I jumped at the opportunity.”

The AlphaPlus Makerspace is a combination of a course and a community of practice led by AlphaPlus team members Tracey Mollins and Guylaine Vinet. In the program, a small group of literacy educators experiment, pilot and reflect on how digital technology can enhance learning creatively.

The 2022-23 Makerspace that Lori joined was focused on video storytelling, and in the first few meetings, they investigated video tools such as Flipgrid and Edpuzzle. In the next several sessions, the group explored storytelling structure and elements. Then they moved into a creation phase, during which participants worked on individual projects, regrouping periodically for peer support and feedback.

“Tracey and Guylaine understand that the whole point of adult education is to recognize all of the skills, experience, knowledge and creativity a learner brings — and trust them with it,” says Lori. “They bring this perspective to providing a stimulating and safe Makerspace experience. And they offered flexible timelines, which allowed me to work in small steps that I could fit in when I had the time.”

Using video storytelling to synthesize a teaching framework

Tracey explains that Lori brought her thoughtfulness and creativity to Makerspace, expanding her experience from video-storytelling skill-building to a chance to think bigger: “Lori took the opportunity to synthesize ideas about her practice that she has formed over years of teaching and explore the concept of the personal web.”

“I’m a Métis person and come from a blend of Western settler and Indigenous cultures. The personal web integrates both ways of learning and seeing the big picture. It acknowledges adult learners’ needs beyond academics in four areas: belonging, safety, fun and power,” explains Lori. “With digital teaching, there are so many tools and options; we need a way to prioritize approaches to address learners’ questions and needs. The personal web is a tool for pausing, thinking about the connections in our lives and focusing on where to direct time and energy.”

I’m a Métis person and come from a blend of Western settler and Indigenous cultures. The personal web integrates both ways of learning and seeing the big picture. It acknowledges adult learners’ needs beyond academics in four areas: belonging, safety, fun and power.

Lori completed her video and wrapped up her first Makerspace in early 2023. Since then, she’s started sharing her reframed perspective with her colleagues and peers. She presented the personal web at an AlphaPlus Gabfest as a way of understanding what could be getting in the way of learners doing what they want to do and generating ideas for unique, individualized supports. And she’s bringing the concept into her new role at Lakehead Adult Education Centre

Energized by thinking creatively about teaching

Because of her Makerspace experience, Lori has created a meaningful body of work, built her comfort with sharing digital stories and made valuable new connections with fellow educators.

“Teaching can be fast-paced without time for reflection. Makerspace has offered the deepest reflection and synthesis I’ve been able to do so far on my teaching perspective, bringing together my values and cultural influences,” says Lori. “In this program, educators can be learners, discovering new tools, making mistakes and exploring. I could not recommend Makerspace enough to friends and colleagues in education.”

Would you like to feel more energized by teaching creatively? The Makerspace program is returning in fall 2023 with a focus on using open educational resources to co-create activities and lessons. Contact Tracey at tracey@alphaplus.ca for start dates and registration details.

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Is there a device or technology setup that can help bridge the gap between participants who want to gather in person and those who want to connect online? When Jennine Agnew-Kata was grappling with this question in April 2022, she turned to AlphaPlus for guidance.

As executive director of the Literacy Network of Durham Region, Jennine facilitates service-planning, resource support, advice, professional development and more for the region’s literacy and basic skills (LBS) programs. As Jennine started to return to in-person meetings and service delivery, she recognized that not everyone was comfortable. She began researching the right equipment to make a hybrid experience easy and satisfying for all participants.

“I brought my initial research to Alan Cherwinski, executive director of AlphaPlus, to find out whether his team had experience, thoughts or opinions about the right equipment for hybrid delivery,” says Jennine. “We worked together to explore what I was trying to accomplish, narrow down the options and consider the technical specifications and price points. By May, we had decided to try using the Logitech Connect video-conferencing camera.”

Exploring and piloting a camera for hybrid delivery

Jennine describes the Logitech Connect as a static panoramic camera that requires virtually no setup. It’s wireless, has a built-in microphone and works with almost any monitor or desktop display, laptop, overhead projector or smartboard. Because it’s portable and flexible, the camera can be taken to meetings and programs at locations with unknown setups (for example, public libraries and partner offices), capturing small groups of up to five people attending in person.

Alan and Jennine decided to explore and test the Logitech camera on behalf of others in the sector. They arranged for AlphaPlus to subsidize the device purchase for the Literacy Network of Durham Region and purchase another for a program that could use it to pilot the hybrid model in program delivery. Jennine suggested Brad Cook, executive director of Learning Essentials for Adults in Durham Region (LEADR), who had been looking at similar challenges and opportunities around the delivery of hybrid programming.

Since May, Jennine has used the device for meetings such as literacy service planning and communications meetings as well as the bibliotherapy program she runs. Brad has used the device in small groups with in-person and online participants, for enhanced one-to-one online instruction with more visual components (i.e. screen-sharing plus writing on a board), as a tool for a new math workshop and to hold board meetings and other meetings.

“More learners want virtual service delivery — with highly personalized and meaningful instruction with an instructor that can engage with them at any time — while a significant percentage only want in-person service,” explains Brad. “This pilot revealed that using the Logitech camera, we can add to the possibilities of what we can do during the instruction — in a straightforward manner without undue complication or cost. The camera has been useful for learners who lack confidence in using computers and for instructors who still rely on visuals in a classroom. We now plan to use it to increase the number of small groups using a hybrid model.”

Think of AlphaPlus as your colleagues with technical expertise

Jennine suggests contacting AlphaPlus before investing in technology: “It’s worth reaching out to AlphaPlus to get an equipment audit or learn how to use what’s available at your agency to meet your needs. Talking with someone with a sense of the bigger picture helped me know I was moving in the right direction. It’s like accessing expert colleagues who know technology.”

Did you know that if you’re an adult literacy instructor or administrator in Ontario, AlphaPlus exists to help you? Learn more about the customized support we provide to help you work through your technology challenges.

Planning your Digital Toolbox Story with Susan Korstanje

Trying new things can be daunting but fun. Pushing outside of our comfort zones is a valuable experience. These are lessons that Literacy and Basic Skills (LBS) instructors impart to learners — and that math instructor Susan Korstanje experienced herself over the last two years, as both a teacher and a student.

Susan teaches at the Thunder Bay Literacy Group Adult Learning Centre, which offers free education and skills upgrading for adults via classes in English, math, computers, General Education Development (GED) test prep and trades prep. The team emphasizes meeting each learner where they are and providing personalized learning plans to meet their goals. Susan focuses on building math skills and helping learners apply them in practical ways.

Like many of her peers, Susan has learned new ways of teaching, new techniques, tools, platforms and efficiencies over the last two years. Today, she continues to offer remote instruction for learners who request it. In the spring of 2022, Susan took the new Planning your digital tool box online course from AlphaPlus because of her ongoing need to teach remote learners effectively and provide all of her learners with more ways to learn independently.

Planning your digital toolbox online course 

According to the course creator and instructor, Tracey Mollins from AlphaPlus, planning your digital toolbox is a reflective practice and self-paced, facilitated opportunity for LBS instructors to evaluate theory and research and think about how it applies in their practices. The online course consists of six modules designed to help explore digital technology tools and resources to enhance and expand learning.  

“I created this course to build instructors’ confidence in applying blended learning concepts and methods,” Tracey explains. “For people who plunged into digital technology during the pandemic, it’s an opportunity to step back and consider what you’ve learned and how it fits into the broader field of blended learning.”

While Susan acknowledges that she would have benefited from the peer support available in the AlphaPlus Educator Network, the self-paced format allowed her to fit learning into her unpredictable schedule. She worked through modules covering blended learning frameworks, contexts for learners and educators, goal setting, learner agency and forming a plan. Along the way, Susan summarized her observations, created resources she can use with learners and used frameworks and rubrics to evaluate her use of technology. 

“My primary goal in taking this course was to discover new technologies or new ways of using technologies I was already familiar with,” says Susan. “But I discovered things I didn’t even know I needed and was prompted to evaluate my reasons for and methods of using tools. The course helped me go beyond simply imitating what we could do on paper to create a multi-dimensional learning experience.” 

Susan chose to explore choice boards, Jamboard and Flipgrid during the course to help her extend learning beyond the classroom. The choice board allows learners to continue learning independently, and Jamboard supports both synchronous and asynchronous learning and communication between lessons. She is considering ways to use Flipgrid to encourage learners to think about topics and create videos outside of class time — strengthening their communications skills.

Taking the course meant benefiting from the learner experience

Susan explains that she has added new tools to her digital tool box and explored new ways of using familiar tools thanks to the course. She now has an expanded suite that she can draw from when she needs to. Furthermore, the course turned out to have greater depth and breadth than she expected, covering such topics as the theories and framework around blended learning. And the course eased the way as she continued to push outside her comfort zone and learn new technologies — a process that created a deeper sense of empathy with learners’ experiences.

“Our learners are constantly facing things that they never thought they could do before, and this experience helped me appreciate that while that’s fun, it’s also daunting,” says Susan. “An important point in the course was the focus on learner agency. To encourage lifelong learning, we encourage learners to make their own choices and follow their paths toward their goals. That is something this course allows us to do; take the time to be a learner and enjoy all of the benefits of lifelong learning.”

Would you like to grow your digital toolbox, getting exposure to different theories, methodologies and tools? Would you like to be prepared to adapt your approach for diverse learners, technology changes and contexts? Learn more about the Planning your digital tool box online course

Learn more about Planning your Digital Toolbox

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Finding an innovative way to deliver course content online with a coach by your side

Do you have innovative ideas for using technology to help learners? Do you know where to get help with implementing those ideas? Like literacy instructor Amanda Valliere, you can turn to an AlphaPlus coach.

When in-person programs shut down in early 2020, Amanda, a training facilitator at Spark Employment Services in Sudbury, quickly shifted to using Zoom to meet with her group. Her next step: figuring out how to make her Microsoft Office Workplace Essentials Introduction course content and materials available online — with no budget for a learning management system (LMS).

“I had dabbled with Google tools ever since AlphaPlus provided us with an overview years ago — but I knew I wasn’t using them to their full advantage. Along the way, I had formed an idea about digitizing course resources using Google Sites and suddenly, I had the opportunity to try it.”

Developing her idea for a course website

Amanda started by reaching out to Monika Jankowska-Pacyna, an education and technology coach at AlphaPlus. At weekly coaching sessions, Amanda explained her ideas and Monika answered her questions, helped solve problems and worked through different approaches. Monika also followed up between calls with email support and quick video demonstration or troubleshooting. Gradually, Amanda needed less support, so she and Monika met less often and eventually moved to email support.

Monika explains that this consultative, fluid approach is what any program can expect from working with an AlphaPlus coach: “Amanda was precise about what she wanted to do. However, we always start by asking coaching participants what they are looking for and how comfortable they are with a particular technology. Then we serve as a sounding board, offering ideas, suggestions, options and ways of doing things that you might not have considered.”

With Monika’s support, Amanda created a one-stop course website complete with the manual, videos and quizzes. Thanks to grant funding, Spark purchased laptops installed with Microsoft Office, which they lent out to help learners complete the training.

Several months later, Amanda returned to Monika for help with creating a more engaging learning environment and learning to use additional features within Zoom (for example, reactions, backgrounds and chat), Kahoot and other tools.

Learning alongside learners

“I might have been able to do this on my own, but it would have been inefficient and taken so much longer. Instead, I had access to one-to-one guidance catered to what I needed, the day I needed it,” says Amanda. “As a result, I was able to provide an open, engaging, quality learning environment — and more than that, an opportunity to connect during the pandemic.”

Spark has returned to in-person program delivery, but Amanda continues to use her course website. She teaches from it and makes it available to learners who need to catch up on a missed class or review material. In the future, she would like to explore using Google Classroom for even more integration and features.

“As an instructor, you can be innovative, adventurous and role model learning — and we can help,” says Monika. “Amanda could have just made the course materials available as a PDF, but she thought about a unique use for Google Sites and was willing to learn alongside her learners.”
Carry forward the momentum of the last two years, with an AlphaPlus coach

New coaching sessions are opening in April, and the AlphaPlus coaches are excited to support a new round of instructors and program administrators. Here are just a few examples of the ideas they are ready to explore with you:

Would you like to pursue a technology idea with the support of an AlphaPlus coach?
Learn more about coaching and get on the waiting list now for the next round of sessions.

Workshop Story: What we learned from Virtual Showcases

The summer months are a blur at this point, but the memory of how excited and inspired we were after each of our Virtual Showcase sessions still energizes us and we wonder if we should do it again…

 

Setting up for the second session with ASL interpreters
Setting up for the second session with ASL interpreters

The idea

It all started with a Zoom call in 2020. “It would be great if you could organize a conference/sessions where others would share what they use and how they use it,” said Gay Douglas from Literacy Link Niagara. “And then you can spend some time training us on some of the tools discussed,” added Tina DeLuca from Niagara Catholic District School Board as we were reviewing our recent coaching project together. “It would reach and help so many other instructors and programs,” she added.

This got me thinking… Through our technology coaching services, we work directly with a selected group of programs, but what if we could open it up and make it more accessible to instructors and program coordinators who aren’t engaging with us in this way? Would that be helpful? Would there be interest? 

We explored this idea at our team meetings and decided to add it to our business plan for 2021.  

We were so excited when the sessions got approved in April but also a bit scared — as we had until September to make them all a reality!


The sessions

With the full team support, my colleagues Tracey, Aletheia and I set out to plan, organize and deliver four AlphaPlus Virtual Showcase sessions via Zoom. 

We used Google Sites to set up a website, https://virtualshowcase.alphaplus.ca, where we announced the upcoming sessions and guest presenters. Afterwards, we posted the recordings, slides and additional resources shared by the guests and participants. It’s now a great resource collection to explore! Check it out!

Our goal was to elevate and showcase how innovative programs and instructors use digital tools and approaches to connect and work with learners remotely. We realized that we often meet these amazing instructors and programs through our coaching and other projects, but this was a chance to really showcase them and in a different way. ASL interpretation services were provided and allowed the Deaf community to participate as well.

We even tried to be clever about our session titles, but it wasn’t always that easy, so we gave up after the first one. 🙂

The sessions focused on:

  1. Fighting the Zoombie fatigue: Making online learning more “human” for teachers and learners
  2. Online tools to the rescue: Engaging learners to collaborate together remotely
  3. Digital resource collections: Extending learning and critical thinking beyond virtual meetings
  4. LMS in LBS: Figuring out if a learning management system is the right fit for your program

Each session featured three guest organizations — representing a community program, school board and college — that shared their approaches, strategies and tips on how they connect with learners and build a virtual community using online tools and resources.

We loved how guests used slides or simply shared their screens to show us their approaches and how participants got involved, asked questions and shared their own experiences and resources in the chats and breakout rooms. It really felt like a community coming together to a virtual event. The Tech Q&A part of the sessions allowed us to discuss the tools in more detail and offer additional tips. They weren’t easy sometimes, as we weren’t sure what specific information participants would want to learn, but we were thrilled to receive followup calls and emails from participants telling us how they’re trying and implementing some of the things they learned about in our sessions.

Feedback

We received a lot of encouraging feedback from participants:

“Very helpful to see how others have created very useful resources for their learners and tutors. It was especially helpful to hear about challenges and possible solutions to problems.”

“The information presented will be very helpful for me to help my learners. I was not aware of there being so many resources that are out there to assist us in our everyday teaching.”

“I liked having people from the field speaking and then having some tech information at the end. It was a good combination.”

“The testimony of LBS instructors and their experience using LMS. That was terrific.”

In retrospect

We, as a team doing this type of showcase for the first time, learned a lot too and are sharing our reflections as lessons and tips:

Some of our guests taught us that you don’t need to use new and fancy tools to be effective. You can use and adapt existing tools too. For example, the Excel database spreadsheet shared by Leo and Denise from the Frontier College team was a great hit with participants. We got a lot of requests about it so we created a sample sheet to share their formula and are working on a video to provide more tips and details. 
 

Fleming College team showing how they explain math virtually


Should we do it again?
I’m extremely thankful to everyone — the AlphaPlus team, our guests who agreed to come out and share with others, and participants — for the support and encouragement we received. It wouldn’t be possible without all of you!

As we were wrapping up the sessions and reviewing the feedback, a question lingered… Should we do it again? What should we focus on? What would be helpful?

We decided that it might be best to ask you.

Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us using this SURVEY

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Educator Network Story: Collaborative Professional Learning

How can adult literacy instructors preserve the best elements from last year’s pivot to online teaching? The answer may lie in the AlphaPlus Educator Network (eNet).

“Right now, blended learning is top of mind because the pandemic forced many literacy educators to try new approaches and technologies,” says Guylaine Vinet from AlphaPlus. Educators who worked primarily offline before the pandemic are now thinking about how to bring some of the best elements of remote learning back with them as they return to the classroom.

Guylaine and her colleague Tracey Mollins facilitate the AlphaPlus Educator Network, a community of practice for adult literacy instructors integrating blended learning. They have noticed that the pandemic has bridged gaps between how learners do things in their daily lives and what happens in a literacy program. “For example, even if learners weren’t previously asked to use smartphones in a program, many were using them in everyday life,” says Tracey. “A smartphone can be a valuable learning resource and some literacy programs started using them more during the pandemic.”

Explore blended learning with your peers in the AlphaPlus Educator Network

Blended learning is central to the work of AlphaPlus; our position paper outlines its value and the reasons we advocate for its adoption in the literacy and basic skills (LBS) sector. The position paper describes a blended learning approach that is an enhancement and extension of the application of adult learning principles: Blended learning is learner-centred, activities are relevant and useful, and with a strong teaching presence, learners build digital skills while learning a core topic.

The approach is the foundation of many AlphaPlus services and is the focus of the Educator Network — a collaborative, supportive space where literacy instructors connect with colleagues from other programs to share new tools, materials and ways of doing things.

Expand your learning network and co-create curriculum

As an Educator Network participant, you will have access to the knowledge and experience of AlphaPlus facilitators as well as a group of colleagues who are working through similar questions and solutions.

A significant benefit of blended learning is the opportunity for instructors to co-create the curriculum with learners. Together, instructors and learners bring a world of information and knowledge into the classroom in accessible formats, such as engaging plain-language text, videos and graphics. AlphaPlus’s Educator Network offers participants the opportunity to both explore and experience these curriculum co-creation practices.

Transform your practice and engage learners differently

Former Educator Network participant Shirley Gosselin, an instructor at the Centre de formation de Hearst, describes the transformational experience of adopting a blended learning approach:

After teaching various courses for more than 20 years and more, I’ve noticed that I’m not changing my way of doing things too much. However, after learning about blended learning as an Educator Network participant, I now think a lot more before creating modules and teaching the course. I invite learners to participate in helping improve the content and the way the course is delivered. They feel involved, and we work much more as a group. What a difference it made with a few classes!

As Guylaine says, “Over the last year, programs may have realized that they could be preparing learners differently. Learners are getting used to and expecting an online component, and we can prepare them for the online aspect of any future learning. The good news is you don’t have to flip the whole classroom at once. You can start as small — or as big — as you want.”

“We’re here to provide support: answering your questions, helping you to think through your ideas to make the best decisions and experiment in ways that work for you,” adds Tracey.

Are you ready to join the next cohort of AlphaPlus’s Educator Network? Registration is now open.

Contact Tracey or Guylaine to find out more.

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Educator Network Story: Toronto District School Board

In 2020-2021 we interviewed literacy workers in Ontario about blended learning and the pivot to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s one of the things that Shelley Lynch from Toronto District School Board told us about adapting to remote learning, the power of collaborative learning, how Educator Network (eNet) helped and her approach to professional learning.

Interaction and support

One reason I like being at TDSB is that I like the interaction. I like the energy of sharing ideas and resources. For those of us who want to help one another and are willing, and who are brave enough to say—I think sometimes some people, they’re very independent and solitary, or they don’t want to say they need help—so the people who are willing, are getting together.

If someone helps you, I think then you’re more willing to pass it on and help other people.

I think the teachers who manage their time best multitask, but that’s not me. If I’m teaching students, then I’m teaching students, I’m not doing computer stuff. What I would do is stay after class and do all my computer work because I could not go back and forth and do either thing properly. I used to envy the other teachers who manage that better, but I just know it’s not me.

Training: the good, the bad and the beautiful

I would say you’ve got to give people more training at the beginning, not just drop them in the deep end and let them sink or swim because that’s not fair to the instructor and it’s not fair to the learners. One thing that sort of frustrates me a bit with my school, is everyone’s just supposed to magically do the job all on their own with without any sort of training or sharing much. If I had a problem like if my computer wasn’t working or whatever I would go to [the coordinator] but she didn’t have the time or knowledge and skills to give me what I needed—she was swamped herself and I knew that. We desperately needed some technical support and the MTML Silver Linings Cafés stepped into the breach.

At the beginning, I didn’t know how to how to do things online. I started off doing what I did in the classroom and step by step, I changed and improved. I wish I’d got more of a training, not just something to read or look at—I was busy enough—an actual training session where I could talk to someone and someone could show me something. I wish I’d got more of that, because I feel like I stumbled along figuring things out for myself. Your sessions [at the MTML Silver Linings Cafés] were a lifesaver, Tracey, because we had nobody helping us or telling us what to do or how to do things—we were just dropped in the deep end. I started understanding Zoom better, but I think that during the first three months—April, May, June—I think I was too exhausted because I was doing everything myself. If I’m exhausted, I lose my creativity. I need to have some energy left to create.

Some of these other things that you’ve shown me [at Silver Linings Cafes and AlphaPlus workshops] look interesting, but I have not integrated them left to my own devices. Eventually I might stumble across one again and say, “Oh, that would be good—how can I integrate that?”

Your sessions where you throw a lot of many things at us at once are too much for me. I think some people like it but it’s too much for me. I’d be happier adding things one at a time. I would ask someone like you, “Okay, I’m doing great. Now what is the next good thing for me to add?” Don’t ask me, tell me what the next good thing is for me is to add in. I will trust you and either it will work for me, or maybe sometimes it won’t work for me, but I trust the process. I have to make things my own, but first I have to integrate them.

In September, there was the whole Canvas start-up.

[Shelley is referring to the Educator Network Planning Your Digital Toolbox series of workshops facilitated by AlphaPlus for the Toronto District School Board instructors. In these sessions, the instructors decided to learn how to use the learning management system called Canvas.]

I will say that out of that, there’s been more support within the group.

[After the Canvas training, a group of TDSB instructors, with Shelley’s leadership, created a learning circle. They met every two weeks for three or four months to share strategies and resources and to learn more about Canvas. eNet facilitator, Tracey Mollins, joined the learning circle to support a deeper dive into Canvas features and possibilities.]

Fun, learning and technology – in that order

Canvas was great once I got into it. The first two or three weeks weren’t much fun, but once I could start doing it, it got better and better. Now I’m doing laps instead of battling with it. Why? It fuels my need to learn—my highest value. I learned something and it’s brilliant. It’s allowed me to expand in a whole new way that I didn’t think of before. And it’s made it more fun. My learners love the quizzes, and they love that they get immediate marking and feedback. My courses just keep growing, I keep adding things which is brilliant for new learners, too. I don’t have enough time for all I want to add and put on there. I’m saying I have more ideas than I have time to create.

For me, when I was doing so much Zooming I was exhausted. I know when I lose my creativity it means I’m just overwhelmed and overloaded, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Canvas was a challenge but in a good way. Before, it was challenging but not in a good way—in an exhausting way that drained me. Now, I get tired at times, but I’m not losing my creativity. That is a really good sign. I think it’s a balancing act. It’s how much time do I need to create versus help the learners.

In terms of resources and material, I still have some work to do on that. I’ve always scavenged. I think that there are some more online resources that I could get into but I’m not a [Instructor A] or a [Instructor B] that dives into them all. I have to bring them on board one at a time and make them my own. I think I could do more. This week, we’re doing Kahoot again because it’s fun, and they love it. I did a Kahoot and I brought in some literacy questions—things I want them to know and remember. They love doing Kahoot so that they’re doing schoolwork but in a more fun way. Could I have more fun activities? I’m really good at teaching activities. Am I really good at fun activities? Not so much. The quizzes, for example, lightened things up and there could be other things that I could bring in, like the polls, etc.

Nothing stops me. I can get knocked down, but I always think there’s a solution—there’s always an answer, there’s always someone who knows more than you, there’s always someone who can help—it’s all about communication and helping one another and if I provided some leadership there, that’s great.

I don’t think we’re going to know anything till it happens, until we’re dropped in it. “This is what’s happening next, now make it work.” Like we’re magicians.

Are you a literacy practitioner thinking about how you can respond to the ways that digital technologies are changing how we learn, work and engage in daily life? Are you wondering about what colleagues in other programs are doing? Read more about how literacy practitioners use their skills and wisdom to adapt to changing learner needs and evolving technologies at the Wayfinders Studio: The Pivot to Remote Learning or join the next Educator Network (eNet) cohort.

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Educator Network Story: Metro Toronto Movement for Literacy (MTML)

Smoothing the transition to remote learning for literacy instructors

When Ontario declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pivot to remote learning happened very quickly for literacy and basic skills (LBS) practitioners. In Toronto and York Region, Metro Toronto Movement for Literacy (MTML) partnered with AlphaPlus’ Educator Network (eNet) to provide these educators with support and professional development.

In April of 2020, MTML board member Susan Lefebvre envisioned a space for adult literacy educators to meet, network and share achievements, experiences, challenges and technical knowledge. Already working with AlphaPlus to address MTML’s digital technology infrastructure needs, Susan brought her vision to AlphaPlus team member Tracey Mollins, an organizational development consultant for education and technology.

“I’m not technical, but I knew what I wanted to achieve. Tracey has expertise in specific technologies and blended learning, with many resources at her fingertips. As a former LBS instructor herself, she relates well to the audience I wanted to support,” Susan explains. “I also knew that Tracey would be able to help provide a framework for our group.”

A flexible approach to professional development

Susan suggested starting with weekly calls via Zoom and, with Tracey’s input, decided on a learning circle approach, allowing participants to set the agendas and find solutions to common challenges collaboratively. 

“Because of COVID-19, we were able to take an unusual approach to professional development,” Tracey explains. “We formed a community of practice of highly motivated people working on the same challenge: the pivot to remote learning. We gave the group a place to turn and decided to be flexible and adaptable. And we recognized that while participants could have made the pivot on their own, in the middle of significant disruption, we could make the integration of technology smoother.” 

The first “Silver Linings Café” meetings kicked off at the end of April — the name coined by Susan to acknowledge the motivation and ingenuity demonstrated by instructors as they navigated the complexities presented by the pandemic. From April 30 to June 25, 2020, MTML and AlphaPlus hosted more than 40 literacy practitioners in 12 meetups. Along the way, Tracey helped Susan to research useful technologies and provided demonstrations to help instructors learn a new feature or skill to apply in their next online class. 

Supported instructors, better remote learning experiences

At the end of the five months, Silver Linings Café participants reported reduced feelings of isolation, a shortened learning curve and increased confidence associated with digital technology for remote learning. They reported feeling empowered to help learners tackle learning barriers and noted a beneficial impact on learner engagement. Participants had also been able to help each other by sharing community support resources such as links to food donation programs, computer donation programs and the Toronto Public Library’s Wi-Fi hotspot lending program.

Susan, AlphaPlus and a team of contributors documented many of the group’s lessons, creating and publishing a suite of guides. COFA generously supported the translation of the guides. Topics include setup, in-meeting controls and whiteboards, breakout rooms, polling and building engagement to help others make the most of their Zoom meetings with adult literacy learners.

“AlphaPlus stepped up province-wide during COVID-19, and their partnership made this experience a success for the programs in our network,” says Susan. “Everybody agrees that we cannot drop the ball on technology when we go back to in-person learning. We must continue to benefit from AlphaPlus’s knowledge and leadership in blended learning, and we have to continue to think about breaching the gaps in access to technology many of our learners face.”

Would you like to connect with fellow practitioners in the adult literacy education space? We offer periodic, time-based and structured network experiences for educators with similar goals and visions for using digital technology. Learn more about current and upcoming cohorts of our educator network. If you have questions or would like to talk about joining a group, please contact Tracey Mollins,  at tmollins@alphaplus.ca

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