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Shifting to Online/Remote/Blended Adult Foundational Learning Programming – Field Notes

The following are collated field notes from many Community Conversations held from April 2020 to winter 2021. Our sincere thanks to everyone who participated, shared their learnings, their wisdom and their passion for finding ways to support adult literacy and foundational learning in a sudden shift to virtual platforms. We continue to use these strategies, practices and skills and we know now that this will be in our working toolbox as we move forward.


Getting Online Together

  • Online delivery platforms are not a “one size fits all” scenario, different platforms are going to work for different programs and fit different learner needs. Check out which platforms have good encryption. Online privacy and security should always be considered.
  • Work with your learners to find the platform that will work best for them! If they are already comfortable on a particular platform (ie: WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger), they do not have to focus on learning to use technology at the same time as they are learning the subject matter/curriculum you are working on together. TIP: Send links- one click and you’re “there” at the resource instead of trying to navigate potentially tricky platforms for resources.
  • Not everyone can afford a good Data plan for their phone. This can be as true for practitioners as for learners. A few thoughts:
    • Practitioners, make sure your organization knows what YOUR cell phone limitations might be if you are being asked to connect that way.
    • With respect to learners – be cautious about making assumptions about technology, and about the skills to use that technology as a ‘learning tool’.
    • Be prepared to do Tech support even if it is NOT your skill – learning a new skill can (is) messy, hopefully we can laugh and learn together….even that shared fail/try again experience with a learner can be very helpful.
  • Research the WIFI hotspots and share that info with the learners. The particular business may be closed but the wireless is not and some practitioners note that they are already noticing folks outside of businesses using the free WIFI. This may be valuable information for someone who is trying to figure out how to stay connected to learning.
  • Good online instructional practices at this time are 1) keep the learning bite-sized, 2) keep the assignments short and clear, 3) provide continuous and timely feedback – keep the learning line active and manageable for everyone.
  • Shift intended outcomes from a structured curriculum to a more realistic, holistic, integrated and relevant goal during this time. An opportunity for both practitioners and learners to explore this.
  • Formal learning may not be a priority right now if learners are faced with job loss, kids and partners at home, food insecurity, etc = meeting basic needs. Some organizations talked about their shifted role of providing good referrals to these learners.
  • On the flip side, learning is absolutely a priority right now. Authentic, truly learner-centred learning can be focused on supporting the learner to access resources and tools to meet basic needs in these challenging times. The issues that learners are trying to solve ARE the authentic learning opportunities and although not all of the ‘curriculum’ will be about reading/writing/numeracy we can enhance trust, offer/practice strategies to reduce stress, recognize and promote resilience and adaptability, provide information/resources that supports next-step problem solving and imbed skills in these “just in time” learning opportunities.
  • A couple of digital literacy programs have created powerpoint instructions for getting online. They started their transition to online learning by ensuring that everyone had an email address. Then they could support learners to access their email over the phone if needed. Then they could email out learning material and the participants could begin to practice getting online. It is not rocket science but it is a good example of what it means to scaffold learning to address immediate challenges.
  • It is not surprising that adults who have stronger reading/writing and digital skills PLUS access to reliable technology and internet have found the transition manageable. It was noted that ESL/ELL learners with lower CLB levels who had access to technology/internet are highly motivated to get online and although they required a lot of support they were being successful and very proud of their success.
  • Learners (and practitioners) are in cognitive overload right now. Keep your focus ‘learner centred’ with really manageable learning activities.
  • Track your progress. Keep notes about how you are problem solving, what works and what does not.
  • Evaluate your efforts and those of the adults in your program. Remember, relevant positive feedback in a timely manner.
  • Track the amount of additional time it is taking to offer your programs in these times

If there was an overall theme Community Conversations, it is that everyone is using two important tools: 1) Patience and 2) Innovation. We would add two more 3) Creativity and 4) Courage.

In a Community Conversations, Dr. Jenny Horsman said ‘what a brilliant time to be learning more about how we learn.’ She agreed with other practitioners, like Nada Jerkovic @ CanLearn, that we are required right now to work with ‘stressors’ as the content, not just as something in the background. She reinforced that Emergent Curriculum (i.e. using the stressors or what is emerging as the curriculum) comes from being fully present in the learning moment.

Another practitioner talked about how valuable engaging with learners can be in this setting. It is creating opportunities for assessing other skills, as well as learning more about other needs an adult learner might have… needs that can and often will get in the way of learning.

Yet another practitioner talked about the impact of job loss and of loss of childcare if a learner did still have a job. She noted that even if all she can do is maintain phone/text or email contact then there is room to learn and to return to learning later. Practitioners talked about how best to support learning but more importantly, how to be a knowledgeable resource and respond to very complicated life situations that learners are now needing to address – supporting resilience and hopefulness.

Some more great practitioner tips:

  • Leave instructions for your learners to call you with a specific piece of information. When they call back let the call go to the answering machine to record the message. Most of us hate to leave phone messages (which we have to do more than ever these days) but speaking, like writing, is a generative skill. The practitioner was able to take the phone messages and then work with individual learners on how to leave a good phone message – including clarity of purpose, complete sentences, tone, etc. It became a speaking AND a writing exercise.
  • Email or mail out worksheets (in this case for CIWA’s Pebbles in the Sand course) and have the learners complete them and take a photo with their phone (where possible) and text it back. The accumulated photos also become an electronic portfolio.

From Jacky Rivas/Rural Routes

Jacky distilled a 3-hour workshop into half an hour! Some highlights with respect to tools and practices in the classroom:

  • Provide an outline or agenda, open with ‘Housekeeping’ items like a reminder of expectations about video/audio, chat room, breakout rooms, etc.
  • 10 second rule: after you ask a question, wait 10 seconds. This allows time for students to actually digest the question and feel like there is a chance to respond. This extended silence may seem odd the first few times, but both instructor and learner will get used to it after a while. Explain this process to learners so they become comfortable with the silence and can use it as reflective space to consider and respond.
  • Use the first few minutes of each class to recap what happened in the last class
  • Consider using a flipped classroom – send out materials ahead of class, Learners do prep before class so that when they do come to class, they already have the context and can engage and focus on discussion. This gives clear information about levels of engagement, it also sets an expectation for accountability
  • Do NOT plan on offering a 3 hour class online for 3 uninterrupted hours! A rule of thumb is to chunk up the material to be covered into 15-45 minute sessions with breaks. Jacky referenced Jenny Horsman’s moments of movement or pause to encourage your learners to practice self-care. This is just as necessary in the classroom as it is online.
  • Explore the possibilities in the tools you choose to use. For example, Zoom breakout rooms: excellent tool, and can be improved by assigning roles to participants (i.e. a timekeeper, a note-taker, a person that ensures everyone has shared, etc.). This increases engagement and can minimize the unsure silence that we sometimes find ourselves in when we appear in a breakout room.
  • Use visual support to written material – pictures, videos, or asking learners to use household items to help visualize a concept and keep it interesting (increases engagement)
  • Reminder: Teaching a concept online that you used to teach in-person will take longer when using real-life activities and interactives, so expect and plan for that

Jacky ended with some questions to ask ourselves *best practices for online

  • How can you make your virtual classroom more pleasant and rewarding?
  • Which traditional classroom management strategies and approaches can you apply in the virtual classroom?
  • What teaching styles and methods can you use to be effective in your online lessons?

AH, and a hot tip…there is a Zoom package that gives you the option of having a Zoom phone number. This gets around blocking our personal numbers, etc.

Managing Expectations

The adults who are continuing to participate in programs despite the challenges are coming for connection, connection to a learning self, as well as connection to the curriculum. One practitioner noted ‘keep it simple, keep it creative and responsive and remember to make the connection first’ – a simple ‘how’s it going for you’ can open up the door to problem solving together and practicing skills in a real-life context that makes a difference.

  • Be patient with “resistance”, yours as well as the learners. Maybe the points of resistance are the spaces where fear/self doubt and trust in the learning process surfaces. This is our shared learning opportunity; we can do this with compassion.
  • Bring your joy into the learning opportunity – some practitioners are getting on Facebook for the first time and offering group chats. They are recording themselves explaining key concepts and laughing at how ‘silly’ the videos are…but they are trying and the learners appreciate both the effort and the vulnerability. Take wise risks, laughter is the sound of hope.
  • Does the platform you are using permit you to record sessions (with permission from the learners first)? If so, you may be able to build a repository that learners can go back to for review.
  • Employment Prep programs cannot have employment as a focus. Now is the time to look at the other skills that support positive self image and resilience.
  • The amount of prep time that some facilitators/practitioners are putting in so they can deliver and support online learning far exceeds the budgeted pre-COVID projections. Most are fine with this because of their commitment to the work they are doing… it is still a stressor.
  • Balancing the need for both STRUCTURE and FLEXIBILITY. When we are learning, having some predictability in terms of what we can expect is very reassuring – this is true for both the classroom and online. The need for flexibility within structure recognizes that the time adults can set aside for online learning from home may have to change, responding to the other demands on their schedule. Respectful exploration and negotiation is needed, creative solutions may be required, encouraging learners to stay engaged and feel as though they have input into this process – ‘we are all in this together’.
  • Practitioners are mailing out packages of materials and following up with a phone call. They are putting together newsletters with tips and resources and both emailing and hard copy mailing for learners.
  • Evaluate the process with the learners on a regular basis. Ask what works and what does not? The feedback is so valuable and helps us calibrate the choices we are making. This also highlights that what works well for some is not working well for another, or what worked well this past week suddenly is not working at all.

Things to Consider

Quote: “You might have hit the wall, but somehow, somewhere, someone already paved the way for you to get as far as you have. And maybe, you’re paving the way for someone else. Find out who has accomplished what you are trying to do. Or who has opened doors to getting there. Realize you are next in line.” Excerpt from 13 Things to Remember When You Hit the Wall in Life, Sarah Browne.

‘Hitting the Resilience Wall’ was a recurring sentiment. Practitioners noted that learners who had been very eager to solve the ‘getting online’ problems where becoming overwhelmed by the other big issues in their life – finances, balancing family needs and demands, uncertainty about work and maintaining stable housing. Program managers noted that practitioners were burning out! That the 1-1 with learners in crisis was becoming very stressful, and as the learner’s difficulties became more present and persistent practitioners started feeling helpless and exhausted – and then add in all of the stresses we have in our own lives at this time.

“Mental health resources are SO important; we can share them with each other and with the adults in our programs. AND it seems that having an opportunity to tell our colleagues about the burdens as well as the successes of this time is very important.”

  • It was also noted that the stress level in homes can be very high, especially when resources are stretched, so telephone or Facetime connecting with your learner might not always be the safest way to work together. Again, encourage the learner to lead and be prepared to adapt to things needing to change as circumstances change.
  • Encourage collaborative problem solving that has room for ‘solutions’ to not always work well but we all learn from that also. Practicing those reflective conversations with our learners will deepen the trust – we are all learning and often, especially in the beginning and as you have said, it doesn’t always go smoothly.
  • Practitioners also talked about remembering to block their home numbers when reaching out…to reinforce and set good boundaries. We will burn out if we are accessible 24 hours/day. Let the learners know that if they send you an email you will call them back as soon as you are able. Some organizations are scrambling because their learners cannot be connected with AT ALL, for example learners in Remand or Correctional. This is an additional stress for everyone.

Remember that mental health for everyone needs to also be a priority.

Several practitioners spoke about the work of staying engaged with learners who also are anxious about the future. Many learners are facing even more barriers than usual, heightened by isolation. For some, enrolling in a new course is too big of a risk right now.

Practitioners emphasized the importance of setting healthy boundaries with learners, assessing the needs and having a solid knowledge of other supports and resources that learners could be referred to. An important reminder: you are not the only person who can help the learner problem solve, you have teammates and supervisors that can step in if needed.

Marketing, Recruitment and Retention – going low-tech and high-tech at the same time! Here we go again!

  • Instead of recruiting a new group, perhaps extending the current course for the present cohort, encouraging momentum of whatever retention was managed through the transition to remote learning.
  • Modify course material to ensure delivery is optimal/possible and curriculum is relevant to this time or near future (i.e. some learners are eager to get their workforce tickets as they foresee a lot of job openings post-pandemic).
  • Word-of-Mouth! Your learners are your best advertising! Invite them to spread the word that you are safely open for business and have learner spaces to fill!
  • Word-of-Mouth marketing through community champions and ambassadors.
  • Create simple YouTube videos about your program that you can send out. These audio/visual posters can go onto your social media sites. YouTube links they can be emailed out and shared easily.
  • Use social media: i.e. Facebook posts to promote programs… but know that only those who have access will benefit from that initiative.
  • Utilize internal connections within your organization (i.e. support workers introducing individuals to learning). “Natural feeders” may extend to community partners, reaching out to other organizations to get an idea of whether they know of individuals that the courses could be a good fit for.
  • Work through the waitlists and call and/or email potential learners to make a connection and to talk about learning plans for the future.
  • Develop a short PowerPoint and utilize screen sharing tools to walk prospective students through the course for a sneak peek, this might make it less intimidating for some learners.
  • Ensuring that learners are not “lost”, keeping in touch with them through whatever media they are most able to use.
  • Connect with formal and informal community partners to learn about how they are handling their programs and services at this time and letting them know what you are doing and what you hope to offer in the future. What are the ways you can work together?
  • Some internet companies have begun to offer some very affordable internet packages; this is worth checking out to pass onto your learners.
  • Posters! Simple Plain Language posters emailed or delivered to community partners for placement in high traffic areas. These can also be inserted into those partner organizations newsletters for clients or other partnership networks to spread the word.
  • Posters! Practitioners recommended
    putting them in grocery stores, service agencies, etc. When, and if, community halls, prayer halls and churches reopen, you may be able to post information there. Some closed organizations maintain a public message board – physical or electronic- that you might be able to get a quick ad on.
  • Radio ads, community newspaper or newsletters, etc.
  • Pop-Up info table – obtaining permission (when and where COVID-19 possible) to set up a table in a school, a library but in the meantime what outdoor options are available? Malls, community parks, etc.?
  • PHONE! Maintain the great efforts of the past 7 months and call past learners, learners who disappeared during the pandemic, learners who have expressed interest and did not follow through (yet). Find out what they need, what they are interested in, what barriers are getting in the way of them returning to learning.
  • Make knowledgeable referrals. If you do not have the program someone needs make a good referral…this can build a stronger network of literacy and foundational learning programs and affirm that you have a learner’s best interests at heart – that’s good marketing!

Organizational Capacity

  • Some organizations feel they do not have the capacity for delivering their programming online, or they feel that their particular program is not effectively adaptable to online, so they are waiting for the greenlight to be able to offer in-person. That comes with its own complications.
  • Organizations are working to address their own capacity issues. If they have to increase their in-class offerings because of small class cohorts do they have the staff to instruct? Do they have the classroom space to accommodate additional class offerings? Do they have the cleaning and sanitizing protocols and staff in place to handle the learner/client turnover?
  • Do staff have the support they need to be able to deliver programs in multiple modes safely and effectively? What opportunities does an organization make to ensure staff has the resources and tools they need for acquiring and/or strengthening online teaching skills and strategies?
  • Does an organization have the IT expertise on staff to support practitioners AND learners to get online effectively? There was a scramble in the spring but now there will need to be clear strategies to ensure this capacity. An instructor/practitioner may not be the best person to be providing IT support and addressing technology gaps for learners.
  • How will an organization address ongoing new and returning learner digital/technology gaps-access to hardware and software, internet and data, etc? COVID-19 has highlighted that, within a course/program that is offered online, some learners:
    • have access to technology and have weak or basic skills
    • have access and strong tech/digital skills
    • have no or limited access to internet or data to support learning
    • simply prefer in-person programming because they do not trust/feel comfortable with remote/online
    • etc.


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