Did you see the Community Gabfest announcement in December 2022 and wonder what it was all about?

Why Community Gabfests?

We often hear that one of the ways that you learn best is during informal, ad hoc chats with other practitioners. Then we heard this:

CLN, a literacy support org in Alberta, now runs simple monthly “Community Cafes” for literacy practitioners. Just a simple online meeting, no agenda, where practitioners can chat, vent, brainstorm, etc. I just thought I’d tell you because if there was one organized in Ontario, I’d definitely attend it.

And the Community Gabfests came to be.

What is happening so far?

We’ve held four Community Gabfests and planned two more. At first, we invited a small group while we experimented with the format and the time. We had some amazing conversations and the response was positive. As a participant commented:

It was nice to learn about different experiences from literacy practitioners. The environment was safe and cordial to talk about your experiences with learners.

For 2023, we felt ready to invite the whole Ontario literacy field. We had a good response in terms of registrations. Actual attendance was light but the discussion was thoughtful, thought-provoking and inspiring. One participant said:

This isn’t gab, this is real talk.

What is happening next? 

We would love to learn from and with you at the next Community Gabfest and to hear your feedback about next steps for Community Gabfests. 

Our Virtual Showcase sessions are designed to feature innovative programs and instructors who are using digital tools and approaches to connect and work with learners and colleagues remotely. 

Why Virtual Showcases?

When we started, we were still in the pandemic mode, with many instructors and co-ordinators feeling isolated, frustrated and often unsure about using technology and digital tools to reach and inspire learners, or effectively share and collaborate online with team members. Since our coaching team has worked with innovative programs and amazing instructors over the years, we saw first-hand their interesting approaches, unique designs and exemplary uses of digital tools. This inspired us to shine a spotlight on some of these organizations through Virtual Showcases.  

What is happening so far?

We have now hosted eight Virtual Showcase sessions with 946 registrations. Many participants have returned over and over to explore and share their tips and stories, while others volunteered to be our next guest presenters. We grew and built a community that would gather around to share, connect and inspire each other during facilitated discussions and demonstrations. We also developed resource collections around each topic we discussed (presentations, video recordings and tips/links shared by others) that you can access via the past sessions menu on the website

I found that the speakers had great tools to use and that the sharing of those tools was great! There is a vast amount of knowledge out there and to be able to listen to how people are using the various apps/tools was very informative. Knowing the different organizations that are working with this kind of education to help individuals and having the ability to connect with them is great! 

What is happening next?

As we return to in person services, your needs and our services are evolving again. We all are more tech savvy, and many programs are planning to use blended learning and hybrid models in their practice. We noticed that some of you prefer more frequent and informal settings to connect (like our Community Gabfests) while others look forward to the future showcases. We are excited but wonder, what would you like to explore in the future showcases? 

Click here to share with us what would be helpful. How can we inspire you next?

Questions? Contact Monika

Ten months ago, I joined AlphaPlus as an educational technology coach to help adult literacy organizations across Ontario build capacity through the use of digital tools and technology-enhanced ways of working.

Coming into the adult education field with a background in human-centred design and a user experience (UX) lens, I’ve been particularly interested in exploring how these approaches can be used to support teachers and learners in communities and on the ground. I’ve also been keen to collaborate and create connections with other partners in intersectional spaces.

Here are three projects through which I’ve gotten to know my colleagues, our stakeholders and AlphaPlus’s work more.

1. Upskilling with the Coaching Team

In November 2020, three of us from the AlphaPlus staff took a course from International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)’s SkillRise initiative called “Upskill with EdTech.”

We were the only Canadian organization in our cohort, otherwise made up of American adult education institutions including non-profits, state departments and community organizations.

Over the course of four months, my colleagues and I worked together to define an AlphaPlus tech coaching field guide that leveraged service design principles applied to our work in adult education. For our submission in this course, we earned the ISTE certification “Upskill with EdTech: Preparing Adult Learners for the Future of Work.”

Our field guide was an attempt to encourage staff to engage in reflective practice around our work in the adult literacy and EdTech space and, more broadly, on the mission and values of AlphaPlus as an organization.

2. Design-Thinking Workshops

Around the time we started the ISTE SkillRise project, part of the AlphaPlus staff also worked with a graduate researcher in the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) Strategic Foresight and Innovation program to get hands-on experience with applying design thinking to organizational challenges.

Collaborating synchronously and remotely, these workshops pushed us to work together to identify organizational values, strengths and opportunities for service design improvements.

I was surprised that our executive director made time for all of us to attend these design-thinking workshops, and I feel fortunate to be able to socialize a UX approach in analyzing our internal processes and service models.

3. Service Design and Stakeholder Research

Building on the initiative of using human-centred design and research to improve our organizational strategy, we recently entered into an engagement with Endeavour Consulting for Non-Profits. We’re working with a team of professionals to help modernize our services — in doing so, speaking with customers, partners, staff and other stakeholders to get as much input as possible. This input from the field will drive the strategic reflection and analysis around AlphaPlus’s portfolio of services as we strive to provide as much value as possible to the LBS programs we serve.

I’m active on social media and I like talking about our team and our work because, as Cassie Robinson says, it’s about radiating intent

“There has been so much value in sharing what we’re working on, what we’re learning or thinking about so openly. It’s created community and interest around the work. It’s given the work more validation internally to be able to show the interest in it externally and I can’t tell you how helpful this is when you’re trying to do new or different things.”

In this field, where instructors, administrators and organizations are making an impact in adult literacy and digital inclusion, though often in less visible ways, it’s worth sharing our journey and our learnings as a team in supporting this very important work.

Curious to know who we are? Learn more about the whole AlphaPlus team!

Digital literacy is a tricky concept to pin down. It can mean many things to different organizations and people. Rather than interpret it with a static definition, we describe the more actionable consequences of an equitable, sustainable and effective adult learning system that provides learners with comprehensive digital literacy development opportunities.

To fully realize these opportunities, the same opportunities many take for granted, system-wide adjustments that address learners’ access to technology, integrated understandings of digital literacy and literacy in digital spaces, professional development and capacity-building, program infrastructure, service delivery design and accountability and performance measures need to be considered.


  1. A reliable and affordable home internet connection and the device learners need for diverse, interactive and tech-rich learning opportunities
  2. Initial digital literacy using their own devices (often a smartphone), and leveraging their device to support further learning


  1. Transferable digital skills and insights that enable online participation and safeguard privacy, security and one’s digital footprint
  2. Up-to-date and well-designed applications, platforms, tools and materials for enhanced learning opportunities with a focus on affordable options to support use outside and beyond the program
  3. An approach to blended learning that incorporates online and in person spaces where technology rich literacy and numeracy practices are developed; and paper-based practices are integrated, depending on purpose, individual preference and accessibility
  4. The regular use of assistive technologies and assistive features within applications to build a repertoire of communication strategies
  5. The use of interactive and multi-modal materials and applications informed by evidence-based pedagogy and individual relevance for technology rich learning experiences


  1. Support in navigating fundamental services, businesses and institutions with online-only and online-first entry points; and understandings of the implications (both the benefits and potential negative impacts) of the interactions and transactions
  2. Inclusive participation and contributions in relevant online spaces for social, economic and civic purposes
  3. Engagement in public consultations, democratic forums and processes to ensure representation for themselves, families and communities.  

See – Questioning our ideas about inclusion – and asking for your input

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.

Learner Internet and Computer Access

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.

Diverse Learners and Learning Challenges

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).

Readiness to Pivot to Remote Delivery

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.

Acceleration of Inequities

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.

This spring, our sector made a sudden shift to communicating, working, and teaching online. As LBS programs made the transition to remote delivery, we realized this was an opportunity to learn more about how our sector was working and adapting to this unprecedented and unplanned change.

What were their new priorities and how were those priorities identified? What challenges were LBS programs facing? In the last two weeks of June, we launched and administered a survey in hopes of answering these and other important questions.

Now, as COVID-19 numbers are more stabilized and many programs reopen, AlphaPlus is finalizing a full report detailing our survey’s results. But before the report

goes live, we’re sharing initial results based on responses from 368 respondents who provided information in both French and English.

● 45% of learners have a household Internet connection.

● 27% of learners have limited connectivity using cell phones.

● 13% of respondents said programs purchased additional data and/or devices for learners.

● 67% of respondents were able to focus on instruction; 33% prioritized communication and learner supports.

● Respondents used three to four different modes of communication and instruction, such as telephone, videoconferencing, emails, learning management platforms and printed materials.

● 66% of respondents stated the top priority going forward is adapted accountability and reporting processes.

● 53% of respondents said other priorities are ensuring Internet access for learners, professional development and training using ed tech and access to online assessments of literacy, numeracy and digital skills.

Look for the completed survey report on our website around the end of September. Contact Christine Pinsent-Johnson for more information.

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.


This August, Alan Cherwinski and Christine Pinsent-Johnson represented the AlphaPlus team during an adult literacy roundtable discussion with Jill Andrew, MPP for Toronto–St. Paul’s. They were joined by Reb Chevalier of Parkdale Project Read and organizer Phylicia Davis-Wesseling, founder and program manager of the KGO Adult Literacy Program.

Together, the group discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the growing digital divide and affected literacy workers and learners. The conversation also addressed the need to advocate for increased support, resources and visibility of adult literacy work.

Watch the session on Facebook (you don’t need an account to watch).

Statement from a national network of organizations, people and researchers concerned about adult literacy in Canada

Choose success – Invest in literacy
Our world is transforming rapidly. Trends such as globalization, digitalization and demographic shifts are changing work, communities, the way society functions, and how people interact. In this environment literacy skills matter.
Literacy is more than reading and writing. It is about our ability to learn. It is about problem-solving and critical thinking. It is about accessing information and having the tools to understand and analyse that information. Literacy skills help us realize our life goals and meet the communication and information demands at work, at home, and in the community.
Literacy is about more than the individual person. It’s also about our country. Strong literacy and essential skills contribute to a strong economy, civic engagement, and a healthy population. Although Canada’s skills in general are above average, the proportion of those at the lowest levels has grown slightly over the past decade, and we have a striking digital literacy gap. We need a vision to ensure everyone has the skills to respond to the challenges and opportunities of a complex and rapidly changing world.
Why this matters:

We can improve literacy in Canada. We can support people to participate in society and the economy. With leadership at the federal level leading to policy, funding, and conversation, we can achieve success for Canadians, today and for generations to come.
Canada needs:

We call on all candidates in Canada’s 43rd general election to consider how they will address the literacy needs of Canadians. We call on you to choose success: invest in literacy.

Contact Us
Brigid Hayes (English)
(613) 614-2408
Daniel Baril (French)
(514) 602-4129

Post your support and comments on Twitter: #literacy4all and #alphabétisationpourtous
ABC Life Literacy Canada, Mack Rogers, Executive Director
Adult Basic Education Association, Sara Gill, Executive Director
AlphaPlus, Alan Cherwinski, Executive Director
Alphare, Annie Poulin, directrice générale
BC Health Literacy Networks
Canadian Labour Congress, Hassan Yussuff, President
Calgary Learns, Nancy Purdy, Executive Director
CanLearn Society, Krista Poole, CEO
Centre de documentation sur l’éducation des adultes et la condition féminine (CDÉACF)
Change Makers’ Education Society, Karen Buchanan, Executive Director
Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy, Desneiges Profili, Executive Director
Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy – Creston, Gillian Wells, Community Literacy Coordinator
Coalition ontarienne de formation des adultes, Gabrielle Lopez, directrice générale
Community Literacy of Ontario, Joanne Kaattari, Co-Executive Director
Decoda Literacy Solutions, Margaret Sutherland, Executive Director
Éduc à tout, Jacques Tétreault, Directeur
Fédération des maisons d’hébergement pour femmes, Adeline Jouve, Agente communication et promotion
Fédération du Québec pour le planning des naissances (FQPN), Julie Robillard, Co-coordinatrice
Frontier College, Stephen Faul, President & CEO
Réal Gosselin, tuteur (Université Sainte-Anne)
Brigid Hayes, Brigid Hayes Consulting
Institut de coopération pour l’éducation des adultes, (ICÉA) Daniel Baril, Directeur général
Lakes Literacy, Jennifer Petersen, Literacy Outreach Coordinator
Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick, Lynda Homer, Executive Director
Literacy Haida Gwaii, Beng Favreau, Executive Director
Literacy Link South Central, Tamara Kaattari, Executive Director
Literacy Matters Abbotsford, Sharon Crowley Literacy Outreach Coordinator
Literacy Nova Scotia, Jayne Hunter, Executive Director
Literacy Quebec, Gabrielle Thomas, Executive Director
North Coast Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society, Louisa Sanchez
NWT Literacy Council, Kathryn Barry Paddock, Executive Director
Ontario Native Literacy Coalition, Michelle Davis, CEO
Peter Gzowski Foundation for Literacy, Joanne Linzey, President
Christine Pinsent-Johnson, PhD, Alpha Plus & Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning Researcher
Public Health Association of BC, Gord Miller, President; Shannon Turner, Executive Director
READ Saskatoon, Sheryl Harrow-Yurach, Executive Director
READ Surrey-White Rock, Dr. Allan Quigley, EdD, President
Margerit Roger, M.Ed., Eupraxia Training
Irving Rootman, Adjunct Professor, School of Public Health and Social Policy, University of Victoria
Saskatchewan Literacy Network, Phaedra Hitchings, Executive Director
Linda Shohet, Researcher & Consultant, Adult Education and Literacy
Pierre Simard, travailleur social (Montréal)
Suzanne Smythe, PhD, Associate Professor, Adult Literacy and Adult Education, Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University
South Island Literacy, Mitra D. Evans, Westshore Literacy Outreach Coordinator
Matthias Sturm, AlphaPlus & Simon Fraser University
Diana Twiss, Chair, School of Access and Academic Preparation; Program Coordinator, Community Development & Outreach, Capilano University
Dr. Kathleen Venema, Associate Professor of English, University of Winnipeg
Donna Woloshyn
Yukon Learn Society, Julie Anne Ames, Executive Director
Yukon Literacy Coalition, Beth Mulloy, Executive Director

At AlphaPlus, we use case notes to record our coaching experiences. Each AlphaPlus coach has developed his or her own system of keeping records. We decided that a guide on writing effective case notes for digital literacy training services would better support our work as coaches. We hoped that our guide and our record of how we developed it might be useful to others working in LBS in enhancing their own system of sharing information through case notes.
Our main finding was that, while case notes on their own are not a solution to the dilemmas in our work and we had not learned anything that would help LBS practitioners streamline their data collection process or make it less time-consuming, we were very excited about the potential for the intentional and collaborative, reflective practice model we used to enrich our understanding of how to support practitioners and how to think about integrating digital technology.
Read about our project to see how it helped us plan for 2019 and beyond.