Blog Post

Helping newcomers overcome barriers to online learning & services

By: Marco Campana
July 13, 2021

Welcome to episode 28 of the Technology in Human Services podcast. In this podcast episode, I’m chatting with Whitney Loewen the manager of E learning and special projects at The Immigrant Education Society (TIES) in Calgary. I reached out to Whitney after discovering their Newcomer Introduction to Classes Online project, or NICO.

NICO is an online course designed to help newcomers overcome barriers to online learning. It offers a flexible, self-paced curriculum that can be accessed online at any time. Upon completion of NICO, participants will possess the digital literacy skills required to undertake online language studies. That sounds great, and is needed. But what particularly got me excited was that they created NICO to be an open digital literacy educational resource, free for other agencies to use. If you’re using Moodle as your Learning Management System, you can get the full NICO curriculum to use with your clients. I had a great discussion with Whitney, and discovered even more innovative work The Immigrant Education Society is doing. I hope you find this as interesting and useful a discussion as I did.

If you’re interested in transferring the course materials to your own Moodle LMS, contact WhitneyLoewen@immigrant-education.ca.

Machine-Generated Transcript

What follows is an AI-generated transcript of our conversation using Otter.ai. The transcript has not been edited. It may contain errors and odd sentence breaks and is not a substitute for listening to the audio.

Marco Campana 0:03
Welcome to the technology and Human Services podcast. Can you start maybe by telling me a little bit about yourself and the immigrant education society?

Whitney Loewen 0:31
Yeah, sure. So my name is Whitney Loewen. And I’m the manager of E learning and special projects at the immigrant education society. We’re otherwise known as ties and we’re a newcomer serving agency in Calgary, Alberta. We were founded in 1988. by Mr. Swenson do and he was an immigrant from Pakistan at the time. And so he noticed, even at that time that immigrants were having a very difficult time accessing English language training, never mind getting their credentials recognized. He was an engineer himself. And so he wanted to help other people have a slightly smoother transition into Canada. And so he founded our first our first location and Forest Lawn, which is in the southeast quadrant of Calgary. And today, we have three locations, actually, throughout the northeast and southeast. So these are really vibrant communities. They’re very multicultural, most people don’t speak English at home work may not be their first language. So I don’t think it really fits the stereotype that a lot of people have, but what Calgary is from the outside, they’re beautiful communities to work in.

Marco Campana 1:31
That’s great. Yeah, no, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, I think people when people think of Calgary, they don’t think of the same kind of multiculturalism that exists in Toronto, or Vancouver or Montreal, but, but it is a vibrant, thriving, multicultural community. So it’s really great to kind of place the organization in that space. Thank you for for doing that. And I find these conversations are useful, even just for that kind of, you know, awakening, like, Hey, we’re all over the country, you know, the services exist, there’s a need for them. And, and, you know, there’s tremendous amounts of newcomers Atlanta in different cities everywhere, even though we may have our preconceived notions of where those are. So the thing that attracted me to to ties in that I found was the newcomer introduction to classes online project. So I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit about that, and why it came about and what was sort of the main problem or the main issue it was trying to address?

Whitney Loewen 2:18
Yeah, so it’s an interesting project, and that it’s been in the works for quite a long time, it’s not to something that we decided on, in reaction to the pandemic. We’ve been involved with elearning. For quite some time, we’ve had a number of programs developed over the years, but our sort of granddaddy program was link home study, which we still offer. That’s a really excellent program, I know that there, it’s offered right across the country at different organizations. And for context, it is 30 minutes, one on one with the teacher and the student every week, just for one day. So that’s just a half an hour every week, and the rest of the time, you would be doing homework on the learning management system. So normally, this works really well achieve as the umbrella organization that oversees it, and they do a really good job of keeping things up to date and running smoothly. But because the program is for CLB, three to CLB, eight, we noticed that the majority of our students who are dropping out of the program early for undisclosed reasons were CLB, three, MC lb four. So our earliest learners, and then we took a look at our waiting list, which at the time was very long, because it is such a popular program, and 60% of the people waiting for class were CLB, three and sealed before so we said oh my gosh, you know, because something we really want to look into a little bit further and see what’s actually happening. So we started observing the classes, and we started talking to the instructors, and they said, you know, we’re spending 20 to 25% of every class just going over how to find where their homework is on the LMS. You know, they they’re having issues with opening a Word doc or saving a PDF or doing relatively simple tasks in certain websites that we direct them to outside of the LMS as well. And you know, the eating up a lot of our class time. And so obviously, that’s not ideal. You don’t have enough time to address what you’re actually there to do, which is learn English. And so we really realized that there was a need for a baseline level of digital literacy training before you even got into the English language training. So that’s where nuco came about. So So I guess maybe to describe what it is Nico is self driven digital literacy training, and it can be offered in the class or completely independently. teacher can help you walk through it, or you can do it on your own. There’s all sorts of ways to do it.

Marco Campana 4:27
And yeah, I mean, I think you raised another really interesting point. This was the pre pandemic project. And in fact, online learning around ESL has been around for for longer than a decade in a lot of ways. And I think that’s an interesting point to to raise in this conversation, too, is that this is not something that’s new in our sector. You know, the the links at home study online learning because like you said, You’ve been doing elearning for some time has been around for a while. So I think that’s a really important point as well. I noticed that the that I went through the research survey because you did some research to kind of set the stage to this Figure out what would be what would work I guess for Nico and, and, and one of the things that are some of the we’ve seen this in some of the project work we’ve done around the technology task group and other other research as well, is that even though this this is this online and blended learning has existed for a while there has been amongst some providers, a predisposition against online learning, you know, a preference of face to face. And, and it came out in the research, I think one of the researchers noted that students with low benchmarks, so probably three, four and below, were discouraged from entering online programs, and encouraged to come into classrooms first before taking elearning. So it was Nico, kind of a response in some ways to say, well, maybe we can figure that out online. And for some learners, they won’t have to go physically into a classroom, but that they could do some of this online and continue online, if that’s their preference.

Whitney Loewen 5:52
Yeah, I certainly think so, like we did want to offer it initially is something that students could do while they’re waiting for further classes. So our intent wasn’t to disrupt elearning that was already in progress. Or it was just to, you know, at the time, our waitlist for link home study was over a year, which is a huge amount of time and, and you can really kind of get kind of despairing when you’re on a waitlist that long, you know, I’m kind of treading water here. What am I doing. And so first and foremost, we wanted to address that we wanted to give people hope that hey, we are acknowledging you there is something for you to do. And this is going to help you once you do get into learning. So I know that not all programs are fortunate or unfortunate to have a waitlist that length, but it is something that’s really good as a preface to before you get into your regular elearning class. Of course, during the pandemic, we haven’t had the luxury of of that prep time. So it’s been really cool to see the different ways that teachers have been using it, they’ve been taking pieces of, you know, certain units and bringing it into their pre existing classes, or they’re directing students to just a very specific video, a specific URL. So rather than just going through it from beginning to end independently, there’s a lot of different ways you can use it. And I think that because teachers are able to do that it helps them with scaffolding their students into elearning, a little bit better. And that has been like a huge need that we’ve seen throughout this pandemic. You know, for instance, at our school, we started off with our classes who are normally in class, starting just a one on one conversation on WhatsApp, because that’s a universal tool, it seemed to be among our students anyways, they talked to their families a lot on it, they’re comfortable with it. And then from there, we get everybody into a zoom class together. And we’re just talking and we’re getting used to having 12 people in a room looking at each other, figuring out all the audio issues and the internet issues. And from there, we add the LMS. So for a lot of students, that’s Google classrooms. In other programs, that might be something else. So you have to work people up to that final iteration of what you want your elearning program to look like. And I think because Nico can be used to help to do that, I think it can help a lot of organizations who might be hesitant, who might not be sure where to start or how to keep going with this elearning thing, because maybe they just need a little bit of helping hand to help scaffold their students into that ideal elearning program.

Marco Campana 8:03
That’s really a really important point, because at first glance, it looks like here’s an elearning package that a student could take and go through module one to module four, or five. And sort of but what you’re describing is, is it can be really customized based on the the learner and the organization and the teacher are the the frontline worker and how they they assess the the individual client, and how they can they get what they need, I guess so there’s pieces that maybe they just need a bit of a module to get over a certain kind of hump before they move on to the next piece.

Whitney Loewen 8:35
Yeah, certainly it can be used in a multiple multitude of different ways. So it’s been really rewarding to see people sort of take it apart, use it however they would like. And we encourage people even to edit it to a certain degree, there are some things that you cannot change. But if you want to optimize it, and maybe take it one step further than what the curriculum has had, we would love for people to do it. Because we want this to be sort of a living, breathing program that continues on beyond the scope of our initial research. I think there’s a lot of danger that these cool pilot projects kind of wither on the vine after the funding dries up. But we want it to keep on going. We’re not you know, we’re not continuing with developing it right this minute. But we we hope that other people will for us as well.

Marco Campana 9:12
Yeah, that’s that’s a thank you for bringing that up. Because that was another thing that really attracted to me when when I when I found the web page, and I saw you’re making it available to people who who also use Moodle to be able to literally, you know, copy and paste and make use of it in their learning management system. How and why did you decide to do that to make it available to other service providers? If they’re using Moodle? I think that’s again, I think that’s the future for our sector is that kind of curriculum and content sharing, but but you’re an early adopter in that space. I’m curious how that happened.

Whitney Loewen 9:42
Yeah, I have to give a lot of the credit to our provincial government funder honestly, because we’ve been working with them with some of our earliest elearning projects. And so we’ve done that for quite a few years. And very early on, they, we were working together and they really recommended that we make that available broadly as soon as the project was in was complete. It’d be just for that reason, because a lot of these pilot projects, they kind of lose momentum after the funding runs out. Maybe the original organization that put in so many hours and so much time into creating this beautiful curriculum now doesn’t have an independent source of funding that can keep paying instructors to keep it going. But if you’re disseminating this curriculum, and you’re giving it to other organizations, it continues to, to live, and it continues to benefit others. And I think also, just from the provincial government standpoint, they’ve always been big proponents of getting settlement services in rural areas going to the same degree that they were in urban centers, a lot of those smaller service providers can’t afford the same sort of program development, or they haven’t got the capacity to offer the same level of programming that they do in the city. So if we can give them access to this curriculum that they can use in any which way they would like, they can become a full step closer to what you know what we’re achieving the city. So there shouldn’t be that disparity of services.

Marco Campana 10:53
I think that’s, that’s really important, especially as we’ve discovered during the pandemic, with the digital divide, and digital inclusion, and access issues, I think, have really kind of come to the fore. So the idea of, of creating something and like you said, having all this investment in a pilot project, and then and then it just kind of just languishes Well, now you’ve put it back out to the community. And, and you mentioned even people being able to edit it and update it themselves. And I noticed like, again, I came to you, in part to get the curriculum for one of my clients. And when we’ve implemented it in our LMS, it’s obvious that there are spaces where you could make additions or edits or changes and even maybe customize something to make it more local or those kinds of things. Are you encouraging people to reshare? What they might customize back into sort of the community in some way? Because it’s something that could evolve over time?

Whitney Loewen 11:39
I think so yeah, I think all that we ask is that people sort of give original attribution to the shell of the program back to ties, because we are closely related to our funder who helped us through this program. It’s ircc, of course. So we want people to know that they had a really big helping hand and getting this off the program or off the off this. I’ll start, I’ll start over for that one.

Marco Campana 12:03
No problem.

Whitney Loewen 12:04
Yeah, I really would like people to disseminate this as far as they can and share their edits with other with other service providers, I think as long as they give attribution for the core content of the curriculum to ties, and just acknowledge that ircc was instrumental in getting the project off the ground in the beginning, and then maybe take their own attribution for the edits that they have made. So that it’s, it’s clear who has done what I think sky’s the limit, it’d be really cool to see what people come up with.

Marco Campana 12:30
Yeah, I agree. I think it’s, I think it’s the sort of the future of content creation. I mean, if if one organization has created something that’s foundationally really useful, then why should I RCC fund other organizations to do basically replicate that, but maybe they can find them to add to it, right. So if someone could take Nico and build in more specialized kind of E learning or more, if different technology tools or things like that, and just kind of keep it up to date with technology trends and things like that. So I’m, I’m curious as well, how ircc itself reacted, because I think this idea of content sharing and reuse is sort of new to them, although it sounds like it’s not new to the province. What was their reaction to this idea of your project?

Whitney Loewen 13:09
I wasn’t heavily involved at that point. But I think that they were quite favorable, because this STI was all about innovation and trying new things. Even before the pandemic before everyone was fully on the elearning bandwagon. I think that they saw the potential in that. I know that ircc is all funders, as you sort of alluded to, are really big on not duplicating services, because that’s just redundancy, right? Or duplicating funding. So if we can work together more closely across the sector, I think you’re going to be much stronger, and more effective and more efficient than if we were all working in our own little silos.

Marco Campana 13:40
I love that. I completely agree. So just to shift a little bit to the outcomes now, because of course, we want to know, what’s the impact then, of the program on newcomers, but so let’s, I’m going to also find out about what what kind of uptake you’ve had among service providers. But But in terms of newcomers, um, you created this to meet a particular need? How has it impacted their digital literacy or their ability to access online learning and online services more effectively?

Whitney Loewen 14:06
Yeah, sure. So we don’t have a lot of empirical data. Unfortunately, I just because the scope of the project sort of expired as soon as we released it out into the world. And we said, here’s, here’s our baby, please take good care of it. And please, we hope that it helps a lot of people. But we do have a lot of anecdotal evidence. And we do have what we’ve observed. It’s been quite popular during the pandemic, of course, there’s a lot of people who are going through the materials, and they’re coming back to repeat certain units, or they’re using it almost as a reference guide. So it’s really cool to see that it can be used as this sort of, you know, perpetual reference that someone can keep coming back to that will really support them. We’re seeing that the majority of people who are enrolling are older adults, which is sort of in line what we see with the rest of our elearning project. You know, the base age for a lot of our learners is 35. And they tend to be older than the than that. That’s not so very old, of course, but in terms of like who we’re serving, that is That is sort of towards the middle of the pack. And they tend to be women, of course, because women have a lot more barriers to accessing in class service than maybe they’re supposed to do if they’re the primary breadwinner. And it’s emphasized more that they need to get into ESL classes a little bit faster, or on a bigger timeframe. So it’s been really cool to see who’s accessing it. But it’s also kind of shown, you know, just once the pandemic has started, that you can empower anybody with a certain amount of digital literacy ourselves included, but there’s still going to be those acute issues that crop up from time to time that you cannot be having someone beside you, either on a zoom call, or in the classroom, helping walk you through it, you know, maybe your internet connection blows up, or there’s some catastrophic printer failure, there’s only so many things that we can address. So I kind of hope that we can use that research to sort of spur funding organizations to realize that there needs to be a broader level of support for eLearning departments, you know, you can empower your clients to sort of self navigate their way through the LMS and learn online effectively, but there still needs to be someone available to help, there still needs to be that support. You know, we had a lot of people spending many hours on the phone with our, with our students, when they were first moving to online learning, since the pandemic started helping them you know, get back onto their zoom class, or how to turn your camera on that sort of thing. And there isn’t a lot of funding to continue that in between classes, because everybody is funded on a project by project basis. But that also means that you can’t you haven’t got the resources to continue improving something like Nico, in between funding periods. So I hope that that sort of like the next, the future frontier, where we’re going with funding is that we look at things from a sector wide perspective. And we start funding those support services that maybe don’t seem so important initially, but they’re hugely important on the back end.

Marco Campana 16:47
That’s it, those are really important advocacy points. I mean, I think we saw this a lot in in during the pandemic is the the sort of evolution of the digital navigator, which is exactly what you’re describing. And in some cases, that it’s the teacher themselves, or a settlement worker who is giving that kind of extra support over and above the the the coursework or the the education, but to get them connected to the technology. In some cases, we’ve seen short term funding for, you know, a halftime position or a shift in someone’s position so that they can do that kind of onboarding and be that support, not just for, for newcomers, but also for the for the workers who for whom this might be also sort of new teaching in a in an online environment, even if they’ve done a little bit of the before in a blended way, doing it purely online is it can be quite different. So I think I think that that makes it a lot of sense and having. I mean, I think we’re moving towards a hybrid service delivery model in the future. And again, you the ESL experiences, that you’ve already had that kind of blended model. But it’s interesting that those supports have never been in place before. And now we see the need for them much more acutely.

Whitney Loewen 17:49
Yeah, actually, we had a sort of interesting experience last year in the middle of the pandemic. So traditionally, like I mentioned that we work with the province quite often on establishing new elearning initiatives, and they’ve been sort of a champion, but just like any funding organization, and just like many of our service providing organizations, you know, not everybody was online or drinking the elearning Kool Aid, they didn’t really see the potential or the need for it when everything was humming along just perfectly in class, right? It’s a really effective model. We’ve honed this over decades, you know, why are we messing with the good thing. And so we would propose the audio learning project, and you kind of got into the habit of asking for the bare minimum that you could get through the bare minimum in terms of instructional prep hours, the bare minimum in terms of curriculum development, or subject matter experts. And that was how your project would get approved, if you could just barely sweep by right. So we were preparing another elearning proposal last year in the middle of the pandemic, after everyone had shifted online. Again, it was for the province. And I had asked for what I’m used to asking for, which is not much for everything, you know, daydreaming about a better world where I can ask for enough for everything. And to their credit, the funder came back to us and they said, Look, we really like this idea, we would like to prove it. However, we would like you to ask us for more money so that we can do this along with you learning best practices, we want you to ask us for more prep time and more curriculum development. And I think my jaw just about hit the floor, because it’s it never happened before. But I was so pleased to be able to work with them on this. So we went back and forth a few times until we finally reached a really beautiful model where our curriculum developers are fully supported, and they’ve got enough time to develop these resources. And this was a first for me and I think for the for the for the funder, if I recall correctly. So it’s been really cool to work with them on that.

Marco Campana 19:32
That’s huge. I mean that. I’d love to explore that a little bit more because I think you’re right, we get we get we put ourselves into a funding box, especially if it’s project based. Where Yeah, we’re, we were low balling ourselves a lot of the time to say, Well, if they don’t see it as priority, maybe we’ll ask for something so at least we get it and then we’ll we’ll at least be able to deliver what we know is in need, for example. So it’s really heartening to hear that the funders themselves are looking at the data and looking at the reality and again I think there’s there’s a sea change that’s happened because of the pandemic, where we’re all sort of starting to realize where technology can be a tool where it can be useful, but also what the resources are required to make it work. So you know, not just digital navigation, but these curriculum and, and instructional designers, you know, they’re, they’re kind of in the back background, you don’t see them, but their work is so essential to creating something that’s seamless and usable and accessible. And that can evolve over time as well. And then obviously, the importance of good pedagogical training for people who are doing that the providing the services online, because that’s, again, different than in a classroom. So I wonder if is that a conversation that you find is happening with other colleagues in the sector as well around looking at, like, we need to ask for what we really need. We need to have this conversation that, you know, technology and online can create efficiencies, but it’s not, you know, resource agnostic, it requires investments of human resources, and even in some cases, technology itself.

Whitney Loewen 20:54
Yeah, I, I wish I could say that we were having that conversation with more people, I think that it’s still early days yet in terms of some organizations to start asking for money for eLearning projects outside of their usual link programming. I think that a lot of organizations haven’t even contemplated yet developing something that may be career specific, or a different skill specific or something that steps outside of link, I think a lot of people were really overwhelmed. If they weren’t doing it already, with just getting their link classes online, or their regular ESL classes online. And they’re sort of taking your breath now and then stepping back and thinking, Okay, now we’re thinking about reopening, you know, it wasn’t gonna look exactly the same as it did before or some of these, some of these tools that we’ve developed over the last year and a half going to stay, you know, for instance, our organization did a really cool hybrid pilot, where part of the class is at home, coming in through zoom, and part of the class is in the classroom with the teacher, and she’s teaching to both of them at the same time. And ircc made a tremendous investment in that setup, and I can’t see them saying, okay, you know, great, we serve everybody, good research outcomes, you know, we’re going to go back to the classroom exactly the way it was, and we’re going to let all this technology languish, I really don’t see that happening. So I think organizations should be having that conversation, as you say, like, what does it look like going forward now? Are there some standards across our sector that we should impose? How can we help each other build on what we’ve learned during the pandemic? Maybe we don’t have to just work in our little silos, maybe we can do this together and become really strong?

Marco Campana 22:25
Yeah, I think that’s, that’s essential. And again, a lot of the research we’ve been doing like in the task group bears that out, people want to know what’s happening. They want to share best practices, they want knowledge mobilization, but half the time it’s not even, it’s knowing what who’s doing what. So for example, the blended model that you just described, or the hybrid model of it, I’m curious what that was what that was like, because that could be incredibly challenging as a model to be you’re teaching literally two different spaces at the same time. And I mean, there’s, there’s technology challenges, there’s internet lag, there’s, you know, audio challenges, there’s different just so many different needs and and potential issues that could crop up in that what was that experience? Like, for the for the instructors? And what did it require as a baseline to get there in terms of not just skill, but also even technology and infrastructure?

Whitney Loewen 23:12
Sure. So I wasn’t terribly closely involved with the initial Infineon implant left. Okay. I wasn’t terribly closely involved with the initial implementation of the project, which is unfortunate, but I have had the chance to observe some of the classes and it’s pretty cool to see them in action. I know that, you know, when we’re deep into the pandemic, the programs that were really suffering were literacy classes. So where adults are learning to read and write and speak at a very basic level, and they haven’t got those study skills developed, even in their home country, because they have limited or no formal schooling. So the greatest challenge was that they couldn’t see their teacher effectively to read their lips or interact physically in the classroom, because it’s a very kinetic class, in our literacy program, you’re moving around a lot, you know, you’re, you’re interacting very heavily with the teacher, and a lot of that has been lost when you move on to zoom. And so those learners were really frustrated. And they were some of the first to really wanted to come back into the class. But of course, you know, paying attention to social distancing and protocols during the pandemic, it just wasn’t possible up to a certain point. But we want to prepare for that eventuality. We wanted them to be the first programs who could come back to the school when we weren’t able to offer that. So we started working with ircc. And we reorganize some of our funding to, to develop these hybrid programs. And it’s been really cool to see, you know, the first teachers who were involved with it are, they tend to be innovators anyways, they tend to be very excited about technology and adopting new approach. And so they’ve been really optimistic and really, you know, forward looking and innovative during this whole thing. So they were really ideal to get going first on this. We didn’t throw anyone in there who wasn’t comfortable with the idea of it. And yeah, there were some bumps that I’m aware of that happened at the beginning. You really have to kind of hold each other’s hands and like take a deep breath sometimes and think, okay, we can do this especially when maybe your learner’s at home aren’t able to connect into the class or, you know, your students in the classroom are feeling a little bit neglected, because you’ve turned your back on them to address the screen for a little bit of time, it takes a while to develop a cadence, I think for teaching in two directions at once. But from what I’ve observed, it works really well. And it allows the students who aren’t comfortable with coming to the class yet, or who don’t have access to transportation, or any of those other usual barriers, to be comfortable and learn at home. And those who are really excited to get back and socialize with their peers and see the teacher to be there in person. So we love the model, it’s working really well. And we’d love to keep doing it.

Marco Campana 25:34
I mean, yeah, some of those barriers and challenges would aren’t going to go away just because if we get past COVID, people who might still have transportation or childcare or timing issues, and things like that. So it makes sense on a lot of levels to increase x accessibility by offering those kinds of different options. And that one sounds really interesting and curious, when it comes to knowledge mobilization, because, again, your your organization sounds like it’s doing some real, real innovating. Are you able to, and this is another issue around resources? Are you able to find the time to share some of these learnings to even do your own case studies? Or is ircc trying to figure out some learning from this perspective as well? Because I mean, again, they’re funding something that is quite unique, but maybe happening in other places in the country? I mean, we don’t even know, you know, is there is there an idea to share this kind of learning the sector, based on your experiences?

Whitney Loewen 26:24
Well, I don’t know if there is a larger sort of umbrella project to take all of these different funded hybrid experiences are different innovative practices, and turn them into one large research study, that would be sort of beyond what I’m aware of. But I know that our teachers have been really, really good at sharing their practices with one another. Just here in Alberta, we have a tesl, Alberta Teachers of English as a second language. And they have a really great conference every year, where people share what they’ve been up to, for the last year best practices, innovations. And they’re always stuffed to the gills with really cool workshops. And so I think we’re going to see a lot of that in the coming HSL workshop, I think it’s going to be really interesting to see, of course, those things that Tesla Canada and different organizations across the country, four different provinces, that I think will, you’ll probably see the same, I think there’s going to be a lot of sharing and a lot of talking about it. Even just from a stress relief standpoint, you know, You’ll never believe what I’ve just been through. But there’s a lot of potential for what we’ve just done. You know, I I’m, I’m really optimistic about that. And I know that just within our own intersectoral work and conversations, people are starting to talk about it already. So I don’t know if it’s formalized. But I know that there is a lot of talk just informally.

Marco Campana 27:34
Now, that’s great. It’s great to know about those venues too, because I mean, increasingly, that those those conferences are happening online, so theoretically, they’ll be recordings and they’ll be there’ll be materials that can be available to a broader audience outside of Alberta, even for example, this is this is completely unrelated to why I initially contacted you. So feel free to say I can’t answer it. But I’m curious about because we’re talking about English language talking about elearning. How much of that has transferred over to some of your settlement sites, in terms of what you’ve been learning around around online services around preparing students? So for example, you could is Nico useful for someone who may not need the language side of things, but may need the digital side of the literacy in a settlement context, for example, is has that been happening that kind of crossover?

Whitney Loewen 28:22
That’s interesting. We haven’t done that in our own organization. I haven’t heard of that specifically happening. But I was looking at the research that you had conducted as well with some of your teammates, and you had mentioned the potential for a digital literacy benchmark. I think that’s an awesome idea. I think that that’s super if there’s a way to build that into the assessment when someone is coming to the referral center, and they’re saying, look, I need these services, what can you do to help me and then they’re assigned to either an educational referral specialist or the the benchmark referral person for language services, if we can give them a digital literacies benchmarking at the same time, maybe then we that could lead to, you know, programs like Nico being built out for the entire sector that would we can be like, okay, you have this benchmark, before you get into these programs that we’re going to recommend to you, we really recommend that you go through this avenue to sort of brush up your skills or become familiar with what you’re going to need before you start learning. Or, you know, hey, you’ve come to us for employment training. This is what’s required in a modern office, right? Because a lot of us organizations have individually, you know, say clerical training or administrative training or old computer classes, but none of them are working together. And even when students, you know, migrate between programs, I would say, even within our own organization, they’re going to be required to use a different learning management system or a different sort of online learning interface than they have even in that previous program. In the same organization. They may have to go from the link home study Canada learning management system, over to Moodle and then over to Google classroom and then maybe just to a class that only uses zoom, but they rely really heavily on like Kahoot quizzes or something. So there’s a lot of literacy that needs to be developed and a certain amount of troubleshooting that a student can conduct on their own to figure it out very quickly, even if they haven’t been formally trained in it.

Marco Campana 30:14
That’s great. First of all, thank you for reading the report. I appreciate that. Um, secondly, that idea actually came out of those consultations, in particular with ESL and FSL. Teachers, because I think they’re so attuned to the benchmark idea. And, and what we’ve seen is that you could have someone who’s maybe a CLB, three, but they could be, you know, digital, their digital literacy could be incredibly high. And we see a lot of that, like you mentioned, with WhatsApp, for example, a lot of folks are very digitally literate about their smartphones, because it’s been a lifeline during migration, for example, and they use it every day, in you know, to connect with friends and family as as part of their settlement journey. So this, this idea of those those, those nuances, and again, I go back to the sort of the research where people thought, Well, if you’ve got little benchmarks, you might have trouble with E learning. And it might be the opposite. For example, they might be very competent with the digital, and just, it can help them get over the hump, but but it’s their language skills that are that are that are more that are lower, but bringing the two together might actually help bring the language skills up, because they’re comfortable already in the in the digital space, for example. So I agree, I think it’s a really fun idea. And when people people brought it up, I thought who I mean, that’s something that it makes a lot of sense, especially from saving time. And, you know, from the settlement side, and just to let you know, in terms of for Nico, I’m the organization I’m looking at implementing it with, we’re looking at it for a broad dissemination of bringing through settlement clients as well, because I think that the content and the curriculum is so is broad enough that it can help prepare for all of the things that you just mentioned, for example, like it’s, you know, and again, I love that each module has a little test, do you need to take this module, for example, I love that it’s not you must go through and you mentioned it earlier, as well, the idea of, you know, as a frontline worker, I can say, Oh, you know, what, I think you should just watch this video or read through the six, the six chapters or something like that, rather than having to go through the entire elearning system, the flexibility of that, that you’ve built in that design is really useful as well. So so just to let you know, I think it’s got, it’s got applications beyond language learning already. And I can see it being used in that way in, in settlement organizations. So, so well done in the design, for sure. So speaking of organizations, what kind of uptake and response Have you been getting from organizations to reuse Nico in their own spaces,

Whitney Loewen 32:28
it’s been pretty popular, honestly, we’ve been really happy to see how many people have been requesting the materials. I don’t have exact numbers, but it’s been fairly consistent, especially during the pandemic, I think, now as we’re coming out of it, and people can take, take a step back and breathe and think, okay, you know, we just dealt with this very acute problem, but how do we prepare people in the future? How do we, you know, take some time to get them up to where they need to be. And Nico can really fill that that gap, I think, I know that there are some sector initiatives, or at least some interest from umbrella organizations and sector organizations in developing further elearning programs. Because of course, they’re not all going to necessarily look like Nico, because that’s, that’s for one type of learner. But there are other types that need to be supported, particularly for like literacy learners or lower, lower English levels, or for very high level learners as well. And you know, that’s a potential. So there’s a lot of different directions to go. And we’ve been really pleased with what Nico has been able to do during the pandemic. But I think there’s a lot of research that can still come out of that.

Marco Campana 33:28
And are there plans that ties to do to build on Nico? I mean, you, you mentioned you already doing other elearning projects, you’ve gotten some provincial funding during the pandemic? Were you looking to take what you’ve learned from Nico, in the future?

Whitney Loewen 33:43
Yeah, that’s a great question. We don’t have anything formalized right now. But I mean, as we were just talking about, there’s all sorts of directions that you could take it in, I think that that would be a really great option for further innovative practices. We are working on some other elearning projects in the background, those that’s never far from our minds. And I think that you raised a good point about looking into what are other sectors are doing, you know, what are our employment instructors doing? What are our peer settlement assessors doing? And and how can we sort of draw them into the fold and have one big elearning strategy for everybody so that we may be working on our own individual platforms and on slightly different things, but how do we have this common thread and this common vision that we can work towards? I think that’s probably what we’re going to be aiming for in the future.

Marco Campana 34:23
Yeah, that’s great. I mean, it’s good to hear that because I think that’s something we learned during the task group as well is that we brought together the what are in some way siloed parts of settlement or ircc, funding the settlement with language learning, and we found there were so many things that could be learned both ways, especially given the common experience of the last year, but in particular, because you know, the language sector is so much further ahead when it comes to E learning and blended learning and as you’re describing even this classroom, plus people at home. I haven’t heard many examples of that. So the the innovation that you’re building on would be really useful to continue to kind of learn from and capture, but across the sector. You know, a As you mentioned, there’s there’s housing workers, there’s employment workers, there’s healthcare workers, there’s settlement workers, there’s so many other organizational colleagues and you know, many silos within organizations that could benefit from this kind of learning. So I’m hoping to share that out to people and show them that this isn’t just an ESL project, this isn’t just the language project, but that the applications in particular, because of the flexibility you’ve built into Nico, this could be really useful for any of their clients, they just need to take the time to assess it. And the final question I have, I guess, is I noticed that students can can can access Nikko through your site. Is that just for people in your catchment area? Or is that from if a student is interested from anywhere in Canada?

Whitney Loewen 35:40
Anyone or anywhere? Yeah, anyone from anywhere would be welcome to come into our website, it’s immigrant dash education.ca. And they’re welcome to sign themselves up if they would like or their teacher can sign themselves up, or you can just shoot me an email, we can include that later, I think, and I’d be happy to send out the course materials, and you could install it on your own Moodle, whether it’s just a few pieces, or whether it’s the whole thing, sky’s the limit. And we’ve as we’ve been saying, so we’d love if other people are using it,

Marco Campana 36:07
for sure. But it sounds like if let’s say I’m I’m a newcomer and the organization I’m working with doesn’t have an LMS or isn’t that technologically advanced, I could still access these materials through your website as a learner.

Whitney Loewen 36:17
Certainly, yeah, we hope everybody does, regardless of where they are, we’d be happy to welcome anybody into the program. So they can make a request at any time. And we were happy to hook them up.

Marco Campana 36:26
That’s fantastic. And I think, again, that’s part of what we are learning over the last year is the accessibility of technology, so that someone in St. John’s can access this information, even though they might not have the service locally, or the local organization has an installed Niko, they can still get access to this and learn and improve their skills to be able to take something that might be local in the end.

Whitney Loewen 36:45
Absolutely. And I think that one of the big plus sides of everything that’s happened in the pandemic has been flexibility. And that’s when we really excelled. I know that you also mentioned that your research is one of the findings is when our funders have worked with us, and they’ve listened to what we’re saying about what the needs of our students are or where we’ve identified, okay, you know, we can still offer this program, but we just want to tweak it a little bit, because we think it’ll be even better or it’ll be more effective. When we’ve had the freedom to do that when they’ve given us a license to do that. I think that’s when you’re really seeing the gains and the really interesting new learning that’s come up during this pandemic. So I hope and and things that such as sharing the course material broadly, right, not just being restricted to permanent residence and refugees in Calgary, but to people learning in Charlottetown, or Winnipeg, or anywhere, right. We hope that everybody can access it. So when that flexibility is there, then that’s when we’re at our best, I think that it should be like the the catch word for eLearning going forward.

Marco Campana 37:41
I think that’s a great a great note to end on. Because I got I mean, I completely agree, I think you’ve built a model that does exactly that. And it sounds like both your provincial and federal funders are looking at this and saying, oh, there is perhaps something interesting here. So maybe we can continue this learning this this type of model of effectiveness, efficiency, but also accessibility well beyond the pandemic is something that could become foundational for the sector itself.

Whitney Loewen 38:04
Certainly, yeah. Yeah. I hope that’s the way that we’re going in the future. I’m optimistic. But we’ll have to see. Absolutely, no,

Marco Campana 38:11
I am as well. But I mean, it’s I feel like they’re listening in a way that perhaps they have an impact, because we’re all going through this together. There’s a shared experience. Now they’re working from home as well, there’s suddenly a realization of things that can be done. There are also realizations of the challenges that are there that we can build, build support for. But those all require resources. So I want to thank you. But I also want to ask you, is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you want to share about the project or about where you’re headed, or what ties is doing around innovation and technology?

Whitney Loewen 38:39
I don’t have anything specific. But I really, I hope that there will be a little bit more emphasis on people working together on sharing knowledge, intersect orally, and and even within the sector. I hope that we can really come together in some ways. I know that there have been efforts to do you do that. But I think that some organizations, especially smaller ones, may have been left behind from time to time. So I hope that we can figure out a way that we can all be in constant communication when we would like to be about what we’re doing. Because I do think that that’s the way forward. I think that’s the only way that we can do this effectively. I think our funders have, you know, they’ve definitely noticed the elephant in the room. There’s no ignoring elearning right now. And so I think there’s a lot of promise. But it can only really happen if we’re all sharing ideas with one another and being in constant communication.

Marco Campana 39:22
I completely agree. And I think that’s a wonderful note to end on. So thank you so much for sharing beyond Nico. As it turns out the the really interesting work that you’re doing at times and and for being an innovator in that what you just described in terms of sharing, and being open to providing the resources that you’ve created to a broader audience. I think I agree. I think that’s the future of the sector and a lot of ways and I think you’ve built something that will hopefully, I mean, it sounds like it’s very popular already, but will resonate with people not just because of the content, but also the model and the way that you’re sharing it. So I really appreciate you taking the time to, to kind of share this with me and my audience. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. Awesome. All right. And and recording. Thank you so much. That was

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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