A Look at Saskatchewan’s Experience Delivering Literacy/ABE by Distance Education.
In January we had a look at the “coordinated model” of ABE delivery in B.C. and last month’s installment focused on the more “institutionally-centered model” in Alberta. Turning now to our own province, most of us are familiar with how our regional colleges, the Polytechnic, Dumont Technical Institute and SIIT—together with community- based providers and the school board adult campuses in Saskatoon and Regina—each deliver ABE and literacy throughout the province. Most know Saskatchewan has used a classroom-based model since the mid-1970’s. But there is a mode of delivery you might be less familiar with—providing literacy and BE to adult learners with distance technologies.
With the 2014 Throne Speech and the recent Budget Speech both singling out the “A-B-E waitlist in 2016-17,” it is surely time to consider the potential of a mode of delivery that is not only geographically “border-free” throughout our regional model; not only asynchronous–meaning classroom attendance no longer matters–but is essentially accessible by any learner at virtually any location at any time of the day or night.
But, there is a lot of controversy around this topic. I have heard practitioners say: “Literacy and basic ed’ taught on-line? No way! Our students need lots of support. Distance education delivery won’t work for our students!”
While few argue that many of our literacy/basic education learners need more support than most other “mainstream” adult learners, we also need to ask: “Does every literacy/BE student need ‘warm body’ instruction in a structured classroom?” What is the evidence?
What about those at senior level 4 who need only a few grade 12 high school credits? What about those who are adept with technology and can’t or won’t come to our classrooms? We are talking about thousands of adult learners across Saskatchewan. The trend is towards distance education.
Saskatchewan Polytechnic has been experimenting with the Ontario-based Arrowmight distance program at the 1-2 Basic Education level for the last couple of years. And, the last time I checked, it was going very well using local tutors for support. With more years of experience, Parkland College is now in its 11th year of successfully delivering grade 12 ABE courses on-line. And, again, there is an ongoing option of personal support with the Parkland program.
So what is the potential of distance education for our field of literacy and basic education? What are the limitations?
This month’s installment is my recent interview with Kami DePape, Director of Academics and Student Services at Parkland College. Kami talks about the Parkland experience and, importantly, she adds that ABE level 3 could also be offered by distance technologies.
Does distance education have the potential to build a whole new mode of delivery across this province? Could we reach hundreds more learners by expanding this model?
Following is my interview with Kami.
AQ: “When did Parkland first begin delivering BE using distance, and why?”
KD: Parkland College started providing distance delivery for Adult 12 (Grade 12) learners within our region in 2004.
We began distance delivery to meet the needs of our face-to-face students, to expand their programming options and to maximize staff specializations. We had a highly skilled staff member then with expertise in the area of computers and information processing who was eager to deliver computer training to other campuses.
It seemed like a good way to help our level four students and has proven to be highly successful since.
AQ: What levels of BE do you offer?
KD: Currently, we offer 20 and 30-level asynchronous programming through our distance school, which was officially launched provincially in 2009. We also have grade 12 face-to-face staff teaching our campus-based levels 2, 3 and 4 Adult Basic Education programs. These are in addition to the 3 instructors in our distance program.”
AQ: How many students do you typically have in the distance program each year? Are they all located in the Parkland region?
KD: The average enrolment per year since 2009 is 275 learners. Many of these take multiple 20 or 30-level subjects, so the actual course registrations are higher. We have served 1,379 learners over the past 5 years, all at level four, meaning 20 and 30-level courses leading to a high school diploma.
In 2013-14, we served 316 learners—our highest enrolment ever. The numbers seem to be rising. The majority of the learners are from across Saskatchewan. However, we have had learners in other provinces, from Europe and the United States who originated from Saskatchewan.
AQ: Do more younger students enroll than more mature adult students? I ask because it seems younger people are just more “tech-savvy?”
KD: No, there is a mix of ages as well as a mix of technical skills.
AQ: And what about instructors? Can you tell us about then? How many are on staff now and are they all in the Parkland region?
KD: We have three dedicated staff and, if there is capacity and need, we get assistance from our face-to-face instructors. One of our distance-dedicated instructors relocated to BC and we were able to continue working with her from B.C. since this is all on-line instruction. We also have support from a counsellor, a coordinator, a program assistant, the IT staff, and our registrar. Our team is very strong and dedicated to making online learning successful.
AQ: So how do your instructors actually teach on-line? Do they ever meet their students face-to-face?”
KD: If students are within the region, they can request to meet our instructors. The students can also Skype with their instructors, so a face is connected to the name. All the courses also contain an introductory video from the instructor so that students can see their face. These introductory videos help students learn how to navigate in our on-line classrooms.
AQ: Roughly what proportion of the distance education students actually do come to campus to meet their instructors—or use Skype to talk with their instructor? I’m asking because it is so often assumed that all basic education students need “warm-body” contact and support. What is your experience on the need for personal contact and support in your distance program?
KP: The vast majority of students communicate with their instructors by e-mail and instant messaging within D2L 9 [Desire to learn]. The next most popular communication method is by phone, followed lastly, and rarely, by Skype. If the students are in our region, they can meet face-to-face with their instructor. We also offer support through counselling and tutoring.
In my experience, the need for support is greater the lower the literacy level and computer skills. Many of our learners in the Grade 12 Online program are highly motivated individuals with a strong goal attached to the course completion – job, promotion, etc. These ones need less support.
AQ: What is the student retention rate in the distance program?
KD: Our retention rate over the past 5 years has been 83%.
AQ: And what kind of feedback do you get from your students–and your instructors? How successful do you think this type of delivery is?
KD: We have student feedback surveys in each course. Most people appreciate the ongoing support provided by our staff. I think that is what makes us unique in the online system. Some learners admittedly struggle with this independent self-paced learning. It is not for everyone, but it provides access to those who have no face-to-face alternatives due to work or location.
Our instructors try to interact regularly with students. If students are submitting assignments on a regular basis, they will receive regular written feedback from the instructor. If students are not submitting work regularly, they will receive an email after 2 weeks of absence from the course. When instructors generate their mark-reports at the end of each month, they will contact students who have not submitted anything in the past month.
Our instructors are dedicated to providing quality online instruction. Establishing a good rapport with distance learners is the key to success. A high level of support is also important. The counsellor is involved when there is a student struggling with the work or not submitting work. She initiates a contact with them, usually by phone, to provide intervention. The coordinator may also be involved in student support.
Our instructors also appreciate the opportunity and time to upgrade their courses annually. This year, we had an instructional designer evaluate our courses and provide training to the staff. I believe that distance delivery can be a very successful option with the right supports and staffing.
AQ: The Polytechnic is experimenting with the Arrowmight program for levels 1-2, but do you think the level 3 curriculum could also be delivered by distance? How would that work? What would the challenges be?
KD: I have read cases of literacy programming being delivered successfully by distance. Therefore, I think the Level 3 curriculum could be delivered by distance. Again, I think staffing, support and design are keys to success.
The courses and staff need to be engaging. Students also need a satisfactory level of computer technical skills and motivation to be successful. Good communication and rapport between instructors and students is crucial and can be challenging through distance. Being able to incorporate group work in an asynchronous format can also be difficult.
Another option for ABE may be a blended model of distance learning with tutor support. We have experimented with this option in the past with good success. It provided that face-to-face support person with the instructor being at a distance.
AQ: I understand there was an agreement among colleges and the former SIAST (now Polytechnic) that Parkland would be the province’s BE distance education provider. Is that still in place? Should there be such an agreement or should that approach change?
KD: The Senior Academic Officers (SAO’s) from the College system agreed to this several years ago at one of their meetings. I am not sure a formal document was ever signed. We have been operating under this informal agreement since then. Most of the Colleges, Sask Polytechnic, and DTI have been great supporters of our program. We work collaboratively to meet the needs of the learners and provide a support system.
AQ: Any final thoughts about ABE and distance education for Saskatchewan?
KD: I think distance learning provides great opportunities for the future in Saskatchewan. Learners will become more accustomed to this platform and their expectations regarding technology will increase. We are becoming a society with everything at our fingertips. Educational opportunities through distance will become an increasingly popular option.
AQ: Thanks, Kami. You have provided the field with some real food for thought. I can imagine some might want to contact you for further information. Thanks again.