Literacy groups learn to adapt to online program delivery

The past few months have thrown our lives upside down. Due to COVID-19, businesses and organizations have been forced to move online in order to keep afloat. Many not-for-profits found themselves scrambling at the last minute to find alternative remote programming solutions. For those who were able to adapt quickly, the past three months have been a real learning curve with positive outcomes.

The Centre for Family Literacy in Edmonton, Alberta is one organization that has successfully begun remote program delivery. The organization did not offer any online programming prior to the pandemic, but they knew they had to act quickly if they wanted to continue to serve their communities throughout this challenging time.

They initially suspended their face-to-face programming in mid-March, when provinces started to declare COVID as a state of emergency; but they quickly realized that the temporary shut-down was going to be a long-term thing.

Kim Chung, Co-Executive Director of Programming and Training at Centre For Family Literacy, started exploring their options.

“We had heard of Zoom so we started to explore its capabilities, and within two weeks we had set up pilot groups to test out the platform,” says Kim Chung.

Chung says they ran some of their family literacy programs as pilots because they already had several families enrolled and simply wanted to test whether the program could be replicated online. Due to the nature of family literacy programming, Chung says there’s an emotional and social connection that sometimes doesn’t convey well over video conference, so they weren’t sure how effective it would be.

Chung explains that they had two facilitators on each pilot session – one to deliver the program and another to help families with the technology and watch for engagement to ensure everyone was being included. If they found that some families were disengaged, then the second facilitator could prompt those to get involved.

“We quickly learned what Zoom could and could not do. We figured out that 10 families is a good number for the online program, otherwise it becomes harder to manage. We also reduced the program from an hour to just 30 or 40 minutes because it’s harder for families to stay engaged online.”

Centre for Family Literacy started offering their full suite of programs on Zoom in April, after running its two-week pilot. With 13 programs in total, Chung says she was really pleased with the results. While they had a few drop-offs, their first five-week program saw 90 adults and 124 children registered.

Centre for Family literacy isn’t the only literacy organization leveraging technology for program delivery. The John Howard Society in Ottawa, Ontario has also seen success with tools like Zoom to stay connected to their clientele, which is comprised of at-risk and vulnerable adults.

The not-for-profit offers daily Zoom lessons on topics such as English, Math and Technology, and also runs one-on-one video conferences for targeted skill-building activities. In addition to their regular programming, they added new offerings such as meditation to help clients cope with the current crisis.

John Howard Society of Ontario says their video conferences with students have taken place in settings ranging from hospital rooms to halfway houses, to airports (as one student made his way across the country to the family farm in BC).

“Our school community really relies on one another, and the first time we managed to get a small group together in a video conference, we cried,” says Donna Lesperance, Skills Plus Facilitator with John Howard Society of Ottawa. “It was such a relief to be together again. Any face-to-face time, whether via video or from a distance, does wonders for student motivation.”

Reaching learners without technology

Lesperance says it hasn’t been easy getting in touch with all students, as many of them don’t have working telephone numbers. She says they initially contacted them through handwritten letters in order to stay connected and check in on their mental health, as well as their literacy needs.

It wasn’t until they started leveraging social media that they were really able to connect with their students.

“Ultimately, when we set up a professional Facebook account, we were able to get in touch with a significant number of the group, especially those who struggle with other aspects of technology. As time has gone on, more students have gained access to technology, so contact has become easier.”

Chung at Centre for Family Literacy agrees that remote delivery, while it has its perks, is a challenge when reaching vulnerable populations or those without the digital literacy skills to take part.

“We surveyed our learners, volunteers and families at the beginning of the pilot program, and we realized that even if people did have access to technology or internet, they didn’t necessarily have the technical ability to do what we were asking.”

Digital literacy skills have become extremely important in the last few months. The pandemic has proven that those without the appropriate digital skills suffer greatly when forced to stay home and physically distance from friends and families. Lacking digital literacy skills can make it difficult for people to complete tasks online, such as ordering food, therefore putting people at risk simply by heading to the grocery store.

Chung says while Centre for Family Literacy offers some digital literacy programming, it hasn’t been their top priority, and they struggle with offering this kind of programming virtually given that the people who need it most might not have the skills to take part.

Seeing success with online programming

Centre for Family Literacy says they will continue offering online classes alongside their regular in-person programming. Chung says while there are more benefits with in-person classes, she can see that people are slowly beginning to make social connections online.

There are other positives as well.

“We see a lot more dads involved now, and even grandparents and relatives who might not live in the same town can now join online with their families and take part,” says Chung. “Because of this, we’re going to start some new intergenerational programming as a way to bring families closer together.”

Despite its challenges, remote program delivery can be successful. It allows organizations to potentially reach more people, especially those who face barriers to in-person programs or live in isolated communities. By offering remote learning, literacy practitioners can ensure their learners can continue developing their literacy skills outside the classroom, and even explore an entirely new set of skills.

“Although this time has been immensely challenging, it has also been an opportunity for our learners to engage in authentic literacy experiences, says Lesperance. “We are willing to try anything to say connected, and when it doesn’t work, it’s ‘feedback’, not ‘failure’; we keep going until we find what sticks. Different students have different needs, but with a combination of strategies from snail mail to video conferences, we’re all moving forward.”