How the Literacy Uplift project is bringing the classroom to learners with a new app

January 20th, 2017 by Alan Cherwinski

Literacy Nipissing participates in the Literacy Uplift project to develop an app for adult learners. We spoke with Vandra McQuarrie, Executive Director at Literacy Nipissing, about her organization’s role in developing the app and testing it with adult learners.

Tell us a bit about the Literacy Uplift app project and why it’s being developed.
The Literacy Uplift project was initiated a year and a half ago by former Canadore College professor and app developer Phil Cowcill, who approached adult education providers, including Literacy Nipissing, about creating a literacy app. With a focus on providing access to literacy and technology training to learners remotely, the app would reduce the need to attend a class or come into an office.

How did Literacy Nipissing work with developers to inform app content?
We began consultation with developers by clearly identifying the specific needs of our adult learners. Because most people have smartphones, we really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to build literacy skills anytime, anywhere — like at home or on the bus. From there, we worked with the developers to clearly articulate learners’ strengths as well as their day-to-day living situations so the app would reflect their learning needs and get them excited about using it to learn.

After some consultation, we identified a need to focus on making the app more adult-centric, including an adult-appropriate interface, images and inclusive content that are appropriate and attractive for adult learners. The challenge was finding ideas and games that are interesting without making learners feel demeaned. There is a café-style function where they can connect with other learners and people involved with the app and create a network within the app itself. So the app lets folks connect as well as see their tracked progression through the app. In the end, the format they’ve come up with is quite good.

What were some of the challenges you faced during consultation?
We talked about making the app appropriate for low-level learners and indicated we’d like it to be free. Many of our learners are of low socio-economic status and are unable to spend on an app.

We also worked with the developer to make the app more culturally sensitive by trying to link in with the Ontario Native Literacy Coalition. This was important because some of the learning modules may not be relevant to some learners, for example, those living in the North, because the content isn’t relatable to their daily lives. Someone in Kenora has no idea what life is like in Kingston, so we want to keep it relevant for all.

During product testing with learners, what will you be looking for?
Learner input is a key component of this project. We will have a test version of the app available next week, and our learners will start using it right away. Our primary focus will be getting input about how they like the app, if they feel it’s appropriate and making sure they don’t feel it minimizes their abilities.

We will also be testing to ensure that the app meets the needs of our older learners who have no or limited experience with technology and that the app can augment reading and comprehension while also being fun.

Overall, we want to know if learners feel the app reflects their lives and experience. Learning is easier when we can see ourselves reflected in the content.

How will Literacy Nipissing use this app to improve services in the future?
We’re hoping to partner with local correctional services to get some cost-effective literacy training into the prisons. It would be wonderful to give inmates access to a tool that improves their literacy skills without having to rely on a teacher, outside funding programs or expensive tools.

We have many learners without access to a car. Ours is a vast, rural area, and for people to travel 45 minutes to reach their local literacy council is very difficult. Often times they can’t make it. If we could get the app available to those outlying areas and get people taking advantage of the networking feature, it would be amazing.

Finally, this is a learning tool that we can deploy when funding and/or programs are not available. The app provides learners a way to connect and grow their reading and comprehension and improve their digital literacy skills at any time.

Want to test the app at your organization?
The project team is now ready to begin recruiting learners to test the app.

Visit the Literacy Uplift project website or contact Dr. Agnieszka (Aga) Palalas and Przemyslaw Pawluk by email at to participate.

Want to learn more about the Literacy Uplift app?
This Ontario-based project is entering the new mobile learning app in the Adult Literacy XPrize competition. But there is more work to be done. To continue generating community interest, the Literacy Uplift project team may be offering a workshop or community event in Toronto to introduce educators and learners to the app and the research project.

If you have questions or would like more information, please email Dr. Agnieszka (Aga) Palalas and Przemyslaw Pawluk at