The Sudden Shift to Remote Delivery in LBS

November 30th, 2020 by Christine Pinsent-Johnson

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.