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Digital Literacy: An Essential Skill for ESL Literacy Learners

  • Digital Literacy: An Essential Skill for ESL Literacy Learners

Stories from the Field Volume 3 is a new series of stories from the Adult Literacy Research Institute that explores innovations in ESL literacy programming that have been spearheaded by the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College. 

In the next six months Sandi Loschnig, the project’s researcher and writer, will be writing about her discussions with ESL literacy practitioners working in this field: their successes and challenges, best practices and approaches, innovations, and professional development needs.

The third article in the series celebrates an innovative program at Bow Valley College that is increasing the digital literacy skills of ESL literacy learners one laptop computer at a time. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Using Technology to Learn and Learning to Use Technology: Transforming Teaching and Learning Practices at Bow Valley College

It is the first week of classes in the Bridge program at Bow Valley College. Mohammed, an ESL literacy student, is just starting his first term. He is happy to learn that he will be receiving a laptop computer of his own to use while in the Bridge program. He eagerly signs it out and carefully carries it home excited about exploring this (new to him) tool. Mohammed is one of over 60 learners in Bridge who will be receiving laptops this trimester as part of the program.

The Bridge program serves immigrant youth between the ages of 18 and 24 with interrupted formal education. They are ESL learners and literacy learners, working on improving their skills in reading, writing, learning strategies, and essential skills. The goal of the program is to help learners identify and transition into the next step in their educational or occupational pathways. These may include adult basic education, high school upgrading, secondary education, or workplace training. Bow Valley College’s Vision 2020 document articulates and supports the development of these kinds of seamless learning pathways for lifelong learners.

While the Bridge program is highly original itself as a state-of-the-art transitioning program, a key innovation within the program is the distribution of laptops to each learner and their incorporation into the curriculum.

Daniel Merryfield and Donald Morris, ESL literacy practitioners who teach in the Bridge program, have been instrumental in implementing the laptop program. I recently spoke to them to find out more about how the program works and how it has affected teaching and learning. Don started the conversation. “With the introduction of laptops in 2013, our approach to teaching has changed. The expectations, the way we present things, the way we work, the way learners manage work, all that has changed. And it continues to change. As the laptop program develops so does our understanding of how to best use laptops in the program.”

With the introduction of laptops in 2013, our approach to teaching has changed.

Dan described how the laptop program works. “We give the students a laptop the first or second week of the term and they keep it. While the learners have the laptops, they are their responsibility. The main goal of this program is to get our learners comfortable using computers and prepared for academic upgrading or other pathways. Many of our learners come with very little exposure to technology…when I say technology what I mean is using a computer, say a laptop or a tablet. The exposure they’ve had is basically through cell phones and social media so they’re quite comfortable using things like Facebook… And as literacy learners, they are still learning to read and write. If they were given an assignment in the first week of classes that involved writing something, typing it and emailing it, many learners would struggle because they don’t have the literacy or the technology skills to complete this task.”

Desire to Learn (D2L)

Bow Valley College utilizes D2L, an online teaching and learning platform, as part of its commitment to ‘learning anytime anywhere’. This becomes especially relevant within the laptop program.

Don explained how the two work together. “With D2L, learners are able to access the work that we have in the classroom and everything is very organized for them. It’s easy for them to find the work that they need to do, to submit their homework, to communicate with their classmates, or to communicate with the instructor. It’s a very good platform. In my classroom, the way I use D2L has changed a lot of things. For example, in paragraph writing, the first draft would be done in writing and then I’ll correct it, and give it back to them. Learners use Microsoft Word to do their second draft and send me their file through D2L. I look at their second draft and either give them a printed copy or send it back to them through D2L. Everything we do in the classroom, whether it’s a paper copy or electronic copy, I put up onto D2L so they have easy access to it.”

It’s a great tool for organizing. It’s an extension of our classroom.

Dan added, “Teaching and learning responses to D2L have been very positive. It serves as a repository of all our work. We have midterms approaching next week and my learners can access every reading that we’ve done, they can access all the vocabulary words, they can access all the writing assignments as well. They have that copy, that’s always there. And as for teaching, I’ve saved all of the learning materials each trimester, so I can go back three trimesters and see what I did, the readings are all right there. So it’s a great tool for organizing…. It’s an extension of our classroom.”

Success Stories

Don described some of the successes he has seen coming out of the laptop program. “We see a lot of success stories of our learners who have moved on to Upgrading or into Career programs, or who are actually working now…. We have alumni coming back to the program and saying how much it meant to them in preparation for their education or in their jobs. …Because when they go into a career program, they’re expected to know how to use Microsoft Office, they should know how to use Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Publisher, applications like that. So with the laptop program, we use technology to learn but we also learn to use technology in the classroom. You can see a lot of transferable skills. The fact that they are now able to use applications such as Microsoft Word or PowerPoint gives them confidence and gives them more opportunities. I believe, for the younger generation like our learners, technology is a necessary tool. Without it, it’s a definite hindrance to whatever career or educational path they want to take.”

Dan added, “I’ve had students come back to me quite happy, quite pleased because they were able to apply online for a job. If I walk into a store with a resume they’re going to tell me go to the website. For our learners this was an access issue. They were being shut out of certain jobs, and the opportunity to even get into some industries. But now they’re more comfortable being online and they’re more comfortable using a computer. The task of filling out a resume is one skill but the task of filling out a resume online is another skill and it was too much for them. They feel empowered that they can go online, they can put it in their application and for them it’s quite rewarding. We’re talking about literacy and digital literacy for our students.”

To read the entire article, visit the Adult Literacy Research Institute.

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