Literacy support and the internet in the Northwest Territories

Those A. Y. Jackson houses stand in a sun like blood and rust.
When spring waters run,
the blackflies come
like a cloud of hungry dust.
Murray McLaughlin, Out Past the Timberline

Reframing Literacy Training and Support in the NWT Using New Technologies, a research report published by the NWT Literacy Council, is already a year and a half old. That's not a lot in human terms, but Tech years are like dog years, or maybe hamster years. Some of the report's numbers - on internet usage, for example, or average download speed - may well be out of date. Still, I found it a worthwhile read for a couple of reasons.

The report built on Ellen Bourassa's 2003 study of the isolation experienced by community literacy providers in Canada's north, and how "information and communication technologies could play a significant role in reducing that sense of isolation." The NWTLC wanted to take a closer look at how the new tech could "create a more flexible and equitable system of training and support" for workers who "deliver literacy programs and services."

I should confess that I missed that. I was well into the report before I realized it was about providing support to literacy providers rather than literacy learners. An even clearer understanding came when I read about the NWTLC's own mixed record with high tech.

Their online newsletter with audio support for adult learners, The Northern Edge, has been well received (I love it and have used it with my own learners). Their monthly, and then weekly, pdf newsletter for literacy providers, "This Week in Literacy (E-news)" has also been a success. On the other hand, they say a review of the NWTLC's own technical knowledge and skills revealed a "somewhat limited capacity" to "design, deliver and support distance and online training."

As well, they say, a number of earlier "distance learning and networking pilot projects... [and] two e-conferences for community literacy providers Reading with Adults with Dr. Pat Campbell, and Best Practices in Adult Literacy and Basic Education Programs... provided interesting training opportunities, but raise more questions than provide solutions for us."

Evaluations show while interest is generally high, participation rates tend to be low. Some of the reasons that we heard for low participation included: a lack of high speed internet, and technological difficulties; limited time for community literacy providers to participate; discomfort with learning on line; and limited computer and technological skills on the part of participants.

It was this situation the NWTLC wanted to re-examine and address. Their commitment to the project is obvious:

Since many of the survey respondents had requested videos they could show to parents, or training videos for themselves, we hired a contractor to train staff from the NWT Literacy Council to run a video camera, shoot appropriate footage, transfer the footage to an editing software program, and edit the footage. Staff also learned to prepare the video material to upload on to a web-based environment.

Unfortunately, the constraints they faced are equally obvious. First is the issue of effective design. The NWTLC show every sign of understanding what Vicki Trottier meant by saying

The web-based delivery of training does provide an opportunity to use a variety of exciting new technological enhancements such video, audio, live chat and so on. However, these “bells and whistles” cannot substitute for poor content! Participants will quickly see through these surface enhancements and drop out of the course if the content is not adequate.

That said, great design is no substitute for a working PC and internet connection, and enough skill and knowledge to use these effectively:

Much of the literature on online learning shows that one of the main barriers to the effectiveness of this approach is the technology, rather than the design of materials. This includes access to computers and to the Internet, connection speed, and the ability to use the various technologies. May (1994) argues that facilitators of online learning need to recognize and accommodate technological difficulties. Access issues are major challenges for many individuals and communities in the NWT.

How we are to "accommodate technological difficulties" May leaves unsaid (nor could she, writing in 1994, have known what they would be). The good people at the NWTLC note that the north has "a much younger population overall than jurisdictions in southern Canada," and express the hope that this "may mitigate some of these challenges" - which would be silly if it weren't so sad.

According to the NWTLC report, Ottawa offers a download speed of 6.834 Mbps, and an upload speed of 0.469 Mbps. In Yellowknife these speeds drop to a third of that: averaging a download speed of 1.939 Mbps and an upload speed of 0.163 Mbps. In Ulukhaktok (pictured above, population between 400 and 450), rates drop even further, averaging 0.320 Mbps and 0.044 Mbps respectively.

Among other things, that means that, in Ulukhaktok, this blog will take a full minute or longer to load, some images will almost certainly call a time-out error and fail to load altogether and any videos I post probably will stream, if at all, with too much starting and stopping to be bearable.

By the way, the Canadian average has been put at a download speed of 4.3 Mbps, much of Europe averages 5 to 6 Mbps, while high tech hotspots in the Far East (Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea) average 8.2 Mbps or better (see, The real connection speeds from Pingdom).

Even supposing the speed issue was addressed - and by now it may have been through improved satellite access and hardware improvements - there are still the issues of user knowledge and comfort, and the operating condition of individual PCs. The report states, "The most significant finding among family literacy providers was their limited access to computers and the Internet. Not surprisingly, given the low access rate, several family literacy providers reported not being able to use computers at all." This is the reality too often overlooked by proponents of web 2.0 learning. And, again, at this point it's worth remembering that we are talking about the barriers faced by literacy support providers. We haven't yet touched on the barriers faced by the learners!

But the NWTLC isn't giving up, and for good reason. The North is vast. You could drop the whole of New Brunswick beside Ulukhaktok on Victoria Island. Baffin Island would swallow up all three maritime provinces and still have room for most of Newfoundland. Technology offers the best chance for literacy providers to share with and support one another. It also offers the best opportunity for adult literacy learners to access distance information and skill-raising experiences.

Let me close by pointing out the two things that NWT literacy providers, through the report, brought to my attention

One was respondents' request that shared electronic print resources be provided in Word 2003 or some similarly accessible format. The NWTLC recalls, with just a hint of exasperation, that effective literacy resources are local literacy resources. Material presented in older word formats are easier to edit, to adapt, to make local. I remember, months ago, wondering if there was any argument for uploading resources as Word documents rather than as pdf files. Now I know.

The second really interesting thing was the respondents' interest in being able to take a virtual tour of other programs and sites. A true virtual tour - one where the user can navigate in any direction they choose in an apparent 3D space - requires some serious CPU power and speed. I don't know how the NTWLC could pull it off. But a well made video tour might be almost as good. It could be hosted online for downloading, as well as packaged on a mail-ready DVD (to bypass download delays). If it was in a compressed or smaller-scale format (I don't know much about these things, but I know some video formats use fewer megabytes than others) it's accessibility could be increased. Anyway, it's worth thinking about.

There's a lot in the report worth thinking about. The attached workplan, pages 35 through 40, offers a valuable model for any literacy coalition. The survey is equally useful as a model. And, if nothing else, the report reminds us, each of us, that underfunded groups and individuals are still working hard, in the midst of sometimes overwhelming isolation, to learn and share and communicate across the many kilometers and cultures of Canada.

Canada ain't some cabinet man in the Rideau club at election time.
Canada is somewhere out there,
Oh Canada is somewhere out there,
out past the timberline.
Murray McLaughlin, Out Past the Timberline

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