Open Literacy in Alberta
When most people think of literacy, they likely think of the mechanics of the language— vocabulary, reading comprehension and grammar. But literacy also comprises everyday applications such as the ability to read documents, graphs and tables. Krista Medhurst, business leader at Bow Valley College, says gaps in these skills can be hugely detrimental for people, negatively impacting their success in the labour market, in post-secondary education, and even be harmful for their health.
Statistics Canada and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) conducted an International Adult Literacy Survey in 1995, and determined that approximately half of Canadian adults had literacy skills gaps that may prevent them from fully participating in the Canadian economy and society. In 1995, Bow Valley College decided it was important to have a version of this tool that measured these skills in the context of work rather than just daily life, and so the Test of Workplace Essential Skills (TOWES) was born, which is linked to the International Adult Literacy Survey through a massive research project.
"Approximately half of Canadian adults had literacy skills gaps that may prevent them from fully participating in the Canadian economy and society."
Through TOWES, Bow Valley College determined what skill gaps exist—many of them related to everyday applications like finding information in documents and graphs—and developed reading improvement tools to address those gaps through hard copy and on-line curriculums available for purchase.
And more recently, Bow Valley College became a part of the Campus Alberta Open Educational Resources (OER) Initiative, whereby they receive funding from the Alberta Ministry of Innovation and Advanced Education, to create a free web-based resource for those who would benefit from improving their literacy skills. Over several months, they created a curriculum that will be available TOWES website by anyone.
A team of subject matter experts, including members from the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant & Intercultural Advancement, are working to ensure the curriculum addresses key literacy gaps. Immigrants in particular may have gaps because while they may have a very strong grasp of English—and in some cases even PhDs in their countries of origin—they are not often exposed to the nuances of how information is often displayed through charts or graphs or numerics in Canada. But Medhurst says, people of all backgrounds and educational levels can have gaps in their literacy knowledge. “These skills are not always specifically addressed in the education system,” says Medhurst.
“These skills are not always specifically addressed in the education system,” says Medhurst.
But the good news is that the OER is targeted and specific, allowing learners to substantially improve their skills in as little as 15 hours. The curriculum will be divided into about 10 modules of 60 or 90 minutes, focusing on having learners replicate how they would access information in real world situations. “We start with basic strategies like locating information and then we have them start integrating information and building skills to complete more complex tasks like interpreting a policy, or a job description or a technical workplace document in a form or table,” says Medhurst. The goal is to have learners develop real world skills applicable to many different careers.
Once the curriculum is developed, TOWES will pilot the OER through learners at Bow Valley College, gathering feedback afterwards. Then, the program will be available to anyone, including Bow Valley College’s network of 50 colleges and non-profit organizations across the country that use TOWES.
Medhurst hopes instructors will use the tool, along with community literacy organizations, immigrant service agencies, aboriginal serving agencies, and anyone wishing to further their chances of entering a post-secondary institute. “Many non-profit organizations don’t have budgets to buy curriculums and in some cases their clients may not have resources to pay for formal education. So, having this available to them free of charge is huge,” says Medhurst.
by Caroline Barlott, August 2015