With financial and technological assistance from Microsoft and Compugen, Frontier College, Canada's preeminent national literacy organization, is undertaking an initiative to greatly expand its reach by using cloud-based services and remote access via the Internet to connect tutors with learners in remote locations. Frontier College was founded in 1899 by Alfred Fitzpatrick, who took learning into the communities where it was most needed–mining camps, lumber camps and railways. Volunteers, both men and women, travelled throughout the frontier by any available means to teach literacy skills one on one and with small groups. [caption id="attachment_471" align="alignleft" width="475" caption="Reading tents were often set up in mining and lumber camps so the men working there could learn to read."][/caption] Now, Frontier College works in prisons, shelters, high-needs neighbourhoods and Aboriginal communities, delivering a wide array of programs to children, youth and adults. "For the past 15 years or so, Compugen has been providing financial and advisory support to Frontier College as well as helping with aspects of their technology through our network of relationships with industry leaders such as Microsoft," explains Andrew Stewart, vice-president, corporate services & marketing at Compugen, who has just stepped down from the college's board after ten years of service. Technology Extends Legacy Training Model To date, the college's teaching model has been to train volunteers to be tutors, who then meet face-to-face with learners to deliver literacy instruction. However, the college wanted to explore the feasibility of expanding the legacy teaching model to include distance learning. "An important aspect of our strategic plan is being able to provide flexible, adaptable programs and support to communities that have particularly high needs, which are often remote, northern communities where learners may not be able to physically get to a location where a traditional face-to-face program can be delivered," explains Sandi Kiverago, Director of Technology and Internal Relations, Frontier College, adding enthusiastically that, "This project fits very well with those needs; and the integral role technology is playing is even cause for rethinking how we define literacy." To that end, an initial architecture was roughed out and development is underway toward pilot testing a solution that integrates the following three system components, all of which will be accessed from Microsoft as subscription-based Online Services (i.e., SaaS) available via the Internet and accessible by tutors, learners and college administrators using any standard Web browser:
- Microsoft Lync (formerly Live Meeting) for Web conferencing;
- Microsoft SharePoint as a portal for tutor-learner collaboration and resource sharing as well as for scheduling and other program administration uses;
- Office 365 Online Services, providing access to Microsoft Office applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
Rail Labourers in Brandon and Dauphin, Manitoba, probably 1920s Virtual Face-To-Face Meetings to Remove Barriers to Connecting Learners with Tutors While the personal interaction will always be an important aspect of literacy training, there are many occasions when it is simply impossible for people to meet face to face: willing volunteers are simply too remote from the people with the desire for instruction. The learning initiative involves the use of Microsoft technology to bring people together virtually–a near approximation of the one-on-one model. The technology is already well known in Canadian business where it is being used to reduce the carbon footprint often associated with branch environments. Frontier College Classroom, probably 1950s We at Compugen will be working with our partners at Microsoft and Frontier College to monitor the ways in which virtualized one-on-one learning are used and the impacts of this experience. Questions we will be asking include the following. Do some learners respond better to this than to a real face-to-face meeting? How difficult is the transition for those familiar with traditional tutor-learner interactions? Is virtual contact time equivalent to, more effective than, or less effective than real contact time, and for which types of learners and tutors? As it is currently designed, the solution is completely online and requires no on-premise installation of IT infrastructure at Frontier College. Learners can simply go to a community centre, a library or other location that has partnered with the College and access online tutoring using an Internet-connected computer with a browser and the Lync client. The learner then meets online with their tutor to receive literacy instruction for use in everyday life and work. The tutor's computer also has the Lync client. In preparation for pilot testing expected to begin in early 2012, Compugen has put all the pieces in place, done the configuring and customization of the Microsoft Online Services, and expects to help the College streamline and automate the onboarding and training delivery processes required by both tutors and learners. "Although the vision is that a learner and tutor will be able connect to one another via the cloud and not need to be in the same room, we're starting with a pilot test that, while completely online, is still based on our conventional face-to-face model," states Kiverago, explaining that, "This way we can continue to work on the system design to translate our traditional tutor-learner relationship into something that works remotely." Redefining the Meaning of Literacy I think it's quite unique, and perhaps a commentary on the growing ubiquity of technology in our lives and at all levels of the social and educational spectrum, to be able to use computers, which often carry with them an air of exclusivity, to help people learn to read and overcome other literacy challenges. "This project marks an interesting milestone in the 113-year history of the College, which predates modern technology and was grounded in a time when literacy was defined pretty much exclusively in the context of books. The whole nature and importance of literacy has now changed to embrace the world of online content and the Internet, which is a profound change in not only what the College does but also in how we have prepare people to be literate and full members of society, to participate fully in the economy in communities and to be full stakeholders as citizens–all of which are tied up increasingly with technology," says Stewart, whose seat on the Board at Frontier College has just been filled by Gilbert Boucher, vice-president and general manager of Compugen in Quebec, whose mandate as Board member is to help the College build an even stronger presence in Quebec. "The use of technology in this way will certainly help to position Frontier College in the 21st century, and will surely inspire more kids to participate in the College's programs because of their affinity for anything to do with computers and technology," predicts Boucher. The College's Sandi Kiverago concludes her comments on the Virtual Learning Program by claiming that, "Being able to hook up volunteer tutors and learners that aren't in the same location is a unique opportunity in the literacy field that has a lot of potential down the road, not just for Frontier College, but also for other literacy and educational organizations that could make good use of a tool such as this." Photos courtesy of Frontier College.