Blog Post

New & emerging professional roles in Settlement service delivery

(This is the sixth in a series of posts from the Settlement Sector & Technology Task Group's final report: From Silos to Solutions: Toward Sustainable and Equitable Hybrid Service Delivery in the Immigrant & Refugee-Serving Sector in Canada. Over the coming days/weeks, I will be extracting thematic sections from the report and posting them as articles to make them more accessible. In each key theme, we provide an introduction, sector perspectives (from interviews and focus groups), a number of useful tools and practices we have found to help guide our recommendations to help the sector and IRCC develop the themes into practice, and then a list of specific recommendations that are relevant to the theme.)

Institutional and Sector Resilience 

In the first phase of our work, we captured a number of promising practices that SPOs had implemented to adapt to the changing environment regarding the format of service delivery and organizational operation. The pandemic crisis has opened up some new opportunities as digital strategies have expanded to reach more audiences. We see the progress that has been made by SPOs, which strengthen the capacity of program resilience. 

In this process, individual settlement practitioners and SPOs have demonstrated creativity, flexibility, agility, and elasticity to create success, strategies, and implications to conquer challenges, difficulties, and toughness in pandemic times. Digital transformation and adopting the hybrid service delivery model can be unique driving forces to encourage and continue institutional resilience in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector. 

New & Emerging Professional Roles in Settlement Service Delivery

Introduction and Discussion about New & Emerging Professional Roles

This section explores new skill sets and roles that are emerging and will be important in a hybrid service delivery model. In many cases, these will not be entirely new roles in organizations. They will become part of someone’s role. It is important to explore these emerging roles not only to identify them, but to also explore the skills required and how hybrid professional roles (such as Frontline Practitioner/Digital Navigator) will emerge, be developed, and workers trained. Professional development training in the areas of digital technology, online service delivery and engagement are inevitable to increase digital transformation in the immigrant serving sector. 

It is crucial to understand that digital professional talents and digital skills learning are interwoven. We have identified a number of new positions and job titles that are emerging in SPOs. These roles include Digital Navigator, Director of Innovation, Data Scientist, Instructional Designer, Content/Subject Matter Expert, Web/tech/app developer, Digital Pedagogy Specialist, Organizational Culture Designer, Cybersecurity Consultants, and others. Below we explore a few of the more common roles we have discovered or are emerging.

The Digital Navigator

Since the pandemic started, many organizations have pivoted possibilities and options to create digital specialist roles. These new positions were filled by admin staff or settlement practitioners whose roles changed to incorporate digital support and orientation for both clients and colleagues. As noted in our preliminary report, Digital Navigators are emerging as an essential role now, during the pandemic, and in the future of a hybrid service delivery model.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines Digital Navigators as “individuals who address the whole digital inclusion process — home connectivity, devices, and digital skills — with community members through repeated interaction”. Their site provides practical tools and documents that SPOs can use to collect information about technology needs of the community and clients, assess community members’ digital skills, conduct follow-up surveys. 

The Digital Literacy Alliance describes digital navigators as an adaptation of traditional digital inclusion roles that will specifically provide remote one-to-one dedicated support to the community. Digital Navigators help citizens identify their internet, device, and training needs, walk them through their options, support them in filling out required paperwork or online forms if necessary, and provide “warm handoffs” (a handoff that is conducted in person (virtual, f2f, or via phone), between two practitioners (within the same organization, or between organizations) with the client directly involved) for additional training or technical support as needed. 

In the context of supporting digital skills for the adult workforce, DigitalUS (2020) described digital navigators as “trained staff or volunteers who help learner-workers secure internet access and/or devices and start to use them to help them meet their goals. Those goals can include using an online learning program to reskill, access services, apply for a job, support their children in school, and more. The navigators coach participants in- person at drop-in locations or virtually (through phone hotlines or online chats/meetings) using techniques intentionally designed to develop the confidence and abilities needed to become agile, lifelong learners of new technologies, an essential component for digital resilience”. Their Digital Navigator Resource Hub & Digital Navigator Toolkit provide useful and practical tips and steps about the digital navigator model.

In the healthcare context, digital navigators are regarded as "new team members" in clinical teams in the digital care setting, where they provide app assessment and recommendation, application setup and troubleshooting, and app data preview and analysis for clinicians to support clinical care.

Researchers created a “10-hour curriculum designed to train digital navigators across 5 domains: (1) core smartphone skills, (2) basic technology trouble-shooting, (3) app evaluation, (4) clinical terminology and data, and (5) engagement techniques.”

The report Digital Navigators: Lynchpin in Equitable Reskilling & Recovery Efforts highlights the need for a long-term approach that makes digital navigation services central in any learning and working environment: “For the new learn and work ecosystem to be more equitable, we must figure out the long-term solution so that digital navigation services become a core, funded delivery model and that the systems are in place to ensure that they are effective and affordable at scale.”

Instructional Designer

Instructional design is defined as “the systematic development of instructional specifications using learning and instructional theory to ensure the quality of instruction. It is the entire process of analysis of learning needs and goals and the development of a delivery system to meet those needs. It includes development of instructional materials and activities; and tryout and evaluation of all instruction and learner activities.” 

Instructional designers work with businesses, K-12 schools, higher education institutions, government agencies, and third sector organizations to develop and distribute instructional materials. Instructional designers are often engaged to develop e-learning for online or blended learning programs. In higher education, for example, instructional designers assist in incorporating technology into pedagogy to achieve course goals and promote student progress through learning environments and modalities. 

By ensuring that online education standards are applied to classes, instructional designers have come to help the online course creation process. These principles include reimagining the instructor role while teaching online, leveraging the benefits of the online modality, planning for appropriate pacing through the course, using strong asynchronous pedagogies, managing online communications, revising assessments for online use, accessing tools to provide better feedback, advocating for fair student-instructor ratios, and supporting online learning communities.

One study, which explores the role of instructional designers in emergency remote teaching during COVID-19, highlights instructional designers’ critical position on accessibility and assessment of instructional material.  Similarly, instructional designers are found to support organizations to create more inclusive learning and teaching environments while creating digital content at rapid speed and scale during the pandemic. The same is true for the non-profit sector. For example, a Calgary-based nonprofit quickly hired an experienced instructional designer in online learning to ensure their approach was effective. 

Instructional designers are increasingly well positioned to contribute to SPOs’ work through their experience in multilingual multimedia and their knowledge about user needs and training learning outcomes. 

Cybersecurity, Digital and Data Protection Advisors

Essential in Digital and Data Maturity Models is risk management. We see and will continue to see roles emerge that focus on cybersecurity, digital, and data protection. Given that jobs like these are increasingly in demand, the sector will need to define these roles, along with attraction and retention approaches sooner rather than later: “The ICTC estimates that in 2020, 218,000 information and communications technology (ICT) positions will need to be filled in Canada. According to ICTC’s projection, about half of these will be new ICT positions while the other half will be replacements for workers leaving the industry. Only 29,000 ICT graduates are expected to join the workforce every year, which is not enough to fill these positions through local supply.”

An example of an emerging role is the Digital Protection Advisor. This is an information/IT expert who can provide guidance on how to handle threats involved with the delivery of digital services. Their responsibilities may differ according to their roles and contexts in human service organizations. Our review suggests that a Digital Protection Advisor’s responsibilities become even more pressing in organizations working with vulnerable, high-risk communities, such as displaced individuals. 

In the International Rescue Committee’s recent call, DPA roles included identifying risks that social media programming creates for clients, creating ways to support online protection for them that enables them to effectively react and respond when a risk related to mis/disinformation online is identified. Digital Protection Advisors also play an active role in coordinating and advising collective efforts of key humanitarian agencies also engaging in this space to create a convening space and support global regulatory policies.

Digital Pedagogy Specialist

Brian Croxall defines digital pedagogy very broadly as “the use of electronic elements to enhance or to change the experience of education”. These "electronic elements" can, he explains, vary from a PowerPoint display to full-fledged MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), to flipped classrooms. It is an attempt to use technologies thoughtfully to improve teaching and learning in a number of ways.

In the context of vocational education and adult training, digital pedagogy specialists’ role is significant in supplementing conventional teaching methods with new technology that allow greater access to educational material and promote interactive learning and teaching in both physical and virtual settings. This is evidenced by the European Commission’s Working Group on Vocational Education and Training (VET) report: “A digital pedagogy specialist is a professional that collaborates with faculty, staff, and students to employ technological solutions in the realisation of teaching and learning aims.”

On the language side of the sector, the issue of digital pedagogy was raised multiple times. Teachers, trainers, and facilitators are all “exploring what online teaching reality means for them. What is the new pedagogy of online teaching at scale really like? What does engaged learning look like in this new environment? How can online learning produce outstanding learning experiences?” Contact North | Contact Nord's Pockets of Innovations Series has 220 promising practices (which, compiled between 2011 & 2019, predate COVID-19) in all aspects of online teaching, learning and organizational planning:

  1. Educational Design, Courses and Resources
  2. Diversity in Blended Learning
  3. Student Access, Engagement and Flexibility
  4. Supporting Student Success Online
  5. OER and MOOCs
  6. Options for Online Assessment
  7. Faculty Development and Support
  8. Models of Collaboration
  9. Organizational Planning for Online Learning

Sector Perspectives on New & Emerging Professional Roles in Settlement Service Delivery

The pandemic has provided opportunities to reflect on individual upskilling capacity and uncovered the potential. Respondents suggested there needs to be a tiered approach to providing digital training opportunities to upgrade settlement practitioners’ digital knowledge and professional skills:

Our initial priority was to identify what direction we were going in, and then set up the training. The training was done, actually from management, and then went down the levels. So we felt it was important that management had the knowledge so that it could support the frontline staff, and not the other way around. So we actually started with and it was done within literally two weeks. So it was a very quick process. But we did identify somebody in-house that had the expertise. And then that person was then kind of deployed that we actually set up training sessions for the entire division. So basically, he went through the management, we found some champions that we trained as well, the champions became helpful to their frontline staff as well as the management did. And then we went into frontline staff training as well. So it was a tiered approach that we did with the training so that all levels had knowledge and all levels were able to access and do things that were online. We did, initially, opt to use Zoom. And so that was integral in making sure that people were really on topic, knowing how to access Zoom, some of the challenges, troubleshooting. We needed them to have that knowledge, even before we rolled it out to our clients. I think even prior to that we had to establish what platform we were using. What was going to be more user friendly? Not just for clients, but for our own internal staff. What was user friendly? What was easy to learn? What was the quickest to learn? And where could we adapt the skills the most? Challenges for us were not necessarily the platform; but, it was more on understanding that our staff themselves didn't have basic Word skills. That was a real eye opener for us. (technology, SPO, focus group)

In addition to a top-down training plan with varied training formats, one respondent suggested that training should be built in a regular work routine and basis:

I think that training, ongoing training actually needs to be built into regular workflows. Because we will never be 100% proficient. I mean, there is always room for learning. So no matter what stage of the learning you are, and I think our instructors are at very different stages. So again, I don’t think we can just come up with one standardized training and expect everybody to take that because we have instructors that honestly are teaching others how to teach online and then we do also have instructors who need some basics as well. So I think all this needs to be ongoing, built into regular workloads and expectation, that a certain amount of work time is devoted to professional development and basically just an expectation of the program that this is done, really an assumption needs to be delivered as an ongoing thing. (language services, SPO, focus group)

As most SPOs’ settlement practitioners had indicated diverse professional development training on hybrid service delivery, to those settlement frontline practitioners in rural areas, training was much less accessible. Though they could attend some of the available online workshops, little was contextualized to their specific geographic restrictions and social urgency:    

I think that potentially there needs to be a separate training or approach that really takes into consideration some of those real world challenges and puts that small centre lens on to the training. One thing we hear a lot about, from our community partners is this professional development, I mean, pre-COVID it was taking place. Calgary and Edmonton and you’re driving or spending all this time and money to get access PD (professional development training). Now with the online resources and its challenges, the training so far isn’t relevant in that rural context. So it’s just, it doesn’t provide as much value as if it were to have that small center lens applied and you’re talking about issues like the rural connectivity lo-fi options for clients. (small centre, SPO, focus group)

Digital professional role 

One settlement worker in an umbrella SPO that provided credential-based training for frontline settlement practitioners underlined digital specialists’ functions should focus on interacting and engaging with clients in virtual spaces:

So it turned out she (digital mentor) understood a lot of the technology of Zoom, which I didn’t see the team using before. And so she did breakout rooms where they did teamwork, she did bring in videos. And so by the end of the class, people were still really engaged after three hours, because it wasn’t just to talk, it wasn’t a talking head or two Talking Heads, doing it. So it’ll be important, kind of show us how they’re using this technology and how you get all these different features because many of us went into the technology, and just did what we had to do. Right. It’d be nice to have some people mentor us with, with some techniques to keep people engaged. Because I’ve seen where people are just drifting off and they’re sleeping. We’re not keeping them engaged. (umbrella group, interview)

As SPOs develop internal capacity, external digital consultants have been utilized to identify needs amongst staff and clients. One SPO brought in a digital consultant who developed ways to support staff to be more engaged in virtual spaces:  

We hired a local consultant. She’s been fantastic. She basically went around and did a little mini needs assessment with each team. She went beyond our working group, and really went to each team and said, What do you need? What if we’re gonna do some training or capacity building? What does it look like? And she identified three buckets of areas that she could focus on. And then it was great that she did that, because she identified some stuff we hadn’t or that I hadn’t heard. One was that there’s our digital divide, even amongst our staff. So the staff were comfortable or ready for using the whiteboard on zoom. But there’s a whole bunch of people who just haven’t done it, because they are really intimidated, they are nervous, they are resistant, they thought it was in a different place. And we need to kind of offer some coaching and one on one, no stigma. So we started to offer that we haven’t a lot of uptake but we’re offering how to go from one on one to zoom, and try to replicate what we used to do in person on screen. So for next week, she is going to teach us about how to activate people’s motivation, using the reactions and getting people to poll regularly and that kind of thing, which is really great. (community health centre, interview)

The intersection of digital administration with pedagogy has also emerged:

It’s been interesting to watch how a lot of programs and some of them are very small, she’s the person who wears the coordinator hat is the teacher as well, that you show them how they can use a Google Doc to manage their staff timesheets, or their volunteer timesheets or something like that. And then they think, Oh, my learner, my learner might be interested in doing something similar. Or when my learner goes to college, they may have something similar at the college, they may have a cloud storage that they’re using for submitting things. So it often trickles from someone thinking about something from an administrative side to seeing an application on a learner side, which is sort of interesting. (adult literacy education organization, interview)

In addition, bringing lived experience to the role of a digital navigator can be crucial:

I’m a newcomer. I’m also an immigrant. And that puts me in another perspective, because I’m, I have been living in Canada for 14 years. And I came from an underdeveloped country, and having all these new things on me, made me realize that there’s more for me to know and learn. And now I put on their shoes, I mean, I know I separate the needs and, and need for knowing more and integrate into the culture and know about the needs of people to try to integrate the culture and Canadian culture as well. So I guess that gives me a different perspective, maybe that some other people experience or knowledge.” (community centre, interview)

Aside from explicit and implicit functionalities that digital specialists, many participants mentioned hiring digital specialists would not be enough. It is important that settlement practitioners learn to be knowledgeable in using digital devices and platforms and prepare for digital transformation readiness. One respondent illustrated the idea of becoming a digital adult educator to provide digital knowledge and skills in the realm of hybrid service delivery: 

It’s a whole extra skill set, when you have to now become an adult educator, to teach clients how to, you know, like a whole new skill and and some, not all providers have that adult education skill set. And so we almost went down the road of expecting everyone to suddenly be the Renaissance man, and be able to still do what your profession is, but then also all of these other things. (newcomer health, focus group) 

Some SPOs have either employed digital specialists or shifted staff roles to become the in-house digital specialist. One respondent who worked as a digital communication assistant in a newcomer health program explained her role in assisting frontline practitioners in exploring digital inequality:  

It would be great for me to individually give lesson plans on technology on how to use Zoom, how to troubleshoot zoom, I’m only one staff member. And there’s also the issue that I only speak English, and a lot of the clients that we serve their first languages are not English. So right now, I’m trying to work on working with different settlement practitioners one on one to kind of figure out what issues that they’re having trouble with their clients the most in relation to technology. And then I think another strategy that we’re trying to do is, we understand that certain clients don’t have access to the internet. There’s that barrier of like, how can we get them to learn about technology when they don’t have technology itself. A lot of our clients do have phones. What I’m trying to build is I’m trying to build a worksheet that's very visual based, and then I would be able to get on the phone or the settlement worker would be able to get on the phone. And they would go through this worksheet one by step to kind of circumvent that issue if they can’t log on to zoom if they don’t have the internet bandwidth to do so. (newcomer health, SPO, focus group)

One participant in a language service program outlined that frontline practitioners’ digital usage and preferences also need to be taken into account:

So it’s really then also looking at what your skill sets are, where people are at in terms of staffing, and in terms of their skill sets and capacities, and really redesigning some of your service activities, to meet them there as well. Because we also don’t want to make our staff feel constantly pressured, that they have to know Instagram. We have a lot of staff who don’t want to be on Instagram. And that’s fine. But then there’s other platforms that they’re more comfortable with. And that’s how we have to tailor our work with our staff. So that they’re not also feeling the pressure of constantly being this tech geek or something.” (school and library, focus group)

New & Emerging Professional Roles Tools & Practice

Technology leaders have long been key actors in supporting organizations navigate through tech-driven change. However, this has been accelerated with the pandemic disrupting the way we work. As IDC’s white paper outlined: “By 2023, 30% of organizations will define a new technology leadership role combining CIO, CTO, chief digital officer, chief data officer, and chief innovation officer functions that will orchestrate the digital road map based on a “use case journey” for their respective organizations.” Positions like these will not be foreign to the sector for much longer.

New & Emerging Professional Roles - Relevant Recommendations

  • Recommendation 2: Establish a common and sector-wide vision for digital literacy -- Next: There is also a need for consistent and ongoing training for staff, not only focused on how best they can use technology, but also how to train clients to use it in a service context. 
  • Recommendation 3: Establish a hybrid service delivery lead at IRCC -- Later: Implement evaluation, learning, and knowledge mobilization processes with organizations whose digital transformation and hybrid service delivery pre-dated COVID, such as pre-arrival, blended and remote language learning, and existing digital efforts funded by IRCC and other funders. 
  • Recommendation 4: Establish baseline sector competencies -- all sub-recommendations
  • Recommendation 5: Establish a national sector capacity-building approach -- all sub-recommendations
  • Recommendation 6: Ensure sector nuances are taken into account -- Smaller centres have different needs than larger urban centres. Smaller organizations without technical infrastructure have different capacity than large organizations with multi-person technical and communications teams. While we have scratched the surface on these nuances, they must continue to be explored to ensure that the sector and IRCC have baseline understandings of the diversity of organizational capacity, digital divide in agencies, regions, and clients, and that support, interventions, and investments are allocated equitably.

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