Getting Online: A real-life research survival story
by Deborah Morgan
Getting Online: Distance Education PromisingPractices for Canadian
Literacy Practitioners (or the GO Project for short) is a
two-year national project designed to research trends, technologies
and promising practices in online and distance learning in the
field of literacy in Canada. How the GO Project came to be a national
undertaking is a good “pan-Canadian” literacy
I like the national perspective. Often, literacy is more regional
and this is a great chance to learn about the bigger national picture.
I am most looking forward to the research results and learning how
people are using online learning and what they perceive the barriers
to be. (Dr. Pat Fahy)
In the spring of 2005, Diana Twiss and I approached what was then
the National Literacy Secretariat (NLS) about this project idea because
we were having great success with teaching the Writing Out Loud Instructor
Training online and were curious to know how or if others were using
distance learning. Yvette Souque, now-retired NLS project manager,
suggested that we get in touch with Joanne Kaattari and Vicki Trottier
from Community Literacy of Ontario, as they had a strong history
of online training development and delivery.
Diana and I started emailing Joanne and Vicki over the summer, sharing
ideas and insights about the literacy communities in our regions—Diana
in British Columbia, me in Alberta, Vicki in Northern Ontario and
Joanne in Central Ontario. When the opportunity presented itself
to meet face to face at the Provincial Literacy Conference in Alberta
in November 2005, we were excited about furthering our discussions
about a research project that would explore the use and value of
distance learning in the literacy field.
We spent the first part of the meeting getting to know each other.
The four of us had extensive experience in literacy and in working/learning
online, but could we actually do this together? Did we share the
same values about and interest in literacy and adult education? What
roles would we each play? Did we really have the time to commit to
such an undertaking? Hard questions, but after a day of talking,
sharing meals and visioning about the future, we decided that, yes,
we could (and very much wanted) to take on this project together,
as a team.
I love the cross-Canada team of literacy-based researchers/writers/facilitators
we have put together for the GO Project. Our different backgrounds
and experience give the project a richness and validity that
I find quite irresistible. Collaborating with this dynamic team
is really productive, stimulating—and fun! (Deborah Morgan)
Following our face-to-face meeting, we continued to work from a
distance, relying on First Class conferencing software and the occasional
teleconference to design and write the Getting Online Project proposal.
One of our biggest obstacles was finding an organization that would
host the project grant money. We were very grateful when Athabasca
University agreed to handle the finances, and especially pleased
when Dr. Pat Fahy, a professor with the university’s Centre
for Distance Education, expressed an interest in playing a university
liaison and advisory role with the GO Project. During that time,
we also asked Lynn Best from Newfoundland to join the team. Having
just completed her masters in adult education through an online program
at St. Francis Xavier University, Lynn added an Eastern Canada perspective,
making the project a truly national one.
In May 2006, after five months of consultations with Yvette at the
NLS, discussions with local literacy practitioners and writing and
rewriting our project ideas, the proposal for the Getting Online
Project was submitted to the National Literacy Secretariat in Ottawa.
The next 12 months were a roller coaster for the literacy community
in Canada. It seemed that everything was put on hold awaiting federal
election results. Following the eventual change from a Liberal to
Conservative government, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social
Development restructured departments (the National Literacy Secretariat
became the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills), reappointed
staff and then made the unexpected announcement of budget cuts to
During that year, we didn’t give up or dissolve the team we
had assembled for the GO Project. With the commitment and tenacity
typical of literacy workers, we continued to talk online about the
project and the need to find ways for those in the field to access
training and support, especially given the reality of decreased funding
for literacy initiatives, such as conferences and regional meetings.
We supported each other through the frustrating months of change
and uncertainty, so when the GO Project was finally approved in May
2007, we were an even stronger team, even more convinced that the
goals of the GO Project were important and timely.
Now, eight months into the project, we are learning and growing
on a daily basis, and are pleased with how the project goals and
objectives are playing out.
I have enjoyed having conversations with literacy workers in Canada
and learning about the amazing things that are happening in literacy
across this country. For me, this research is a chance to learn,
reflect and share what is happening in online learning in the literacy
field with people who are hungry for that information. It is an exciting
project and I am learning way more than I ever thought I would! (Diana
The details of the project were well thought out. Having worked
on collaborative research projects before, we recognized that we
would need face-to-face team meetings, as well as computer-mediated
communication, so we budgeted for three meetings over the two years
of the project. These gatherings are key to the continuity and consistency
of the work we are doing individually and collectively, especially
given the vast geographic distances over which the GO team is working.
After all, our project researchers are spread out from Newfoundland
to British Columbia! This valuable time is used to carve out timelines,
assign responsibilities, develop protocols (such as an online survey)
and strategize how best to gather and analyze data.
We are now divided into two smaller teams: an external team to research
the use of online learning in related fields and an internal team
to research what is happening in relation to online learning in the
Canadian literacy field.
The GO Project has allowed me to meet some wonderful new people,
both in person and virtually. It has provided me with an opportunity
to explore the many exciting and innovative ways that organizations,
large and small, are involved in e-learning in every province and
territory in Canada, as well as internationally. (Vicki Trottier)
This project has been an exciting opportunity to explore distance
education with the literacy community. It’s been really interesting
to note the keen interest that people have in learning more about
using online and distance learning technology for professional
development. (Lynn Best)
Even though we are working as two teams, there is considerable crossover
between the two. As an example, when one member from each team wrote
a piece on methodology for the research report, they relied on each
others’ ideas and feedback during the process.
Similarly, one member from each team has been analyzing the data
collected using AtlasTi software. These team members have worked
closely to learn how to use the software while sharing newly discovered
tricks and shortcuts with each other.
Another tool we use to keep us on track is a monthly meeting using
a learning management system called Elluminate. These meetings allow
us to get caught up with each other, maintain the energy and direction
of the project and share concerns and problems that might be better
dealt with through real-time discussion than a written email.
With the frustrations of the initial project approval and start-up
well behind us, we are really excited to be at the stage where we
are hearing and learning about success stories and struggles that
other folks are experiencing as they try to figure out this technology
and make it work for them.
We are looking forward to each stage of the research, but most of
all to the time when we will share the GO Project findings with the
Canadian literacy community.
I’m so thrilled to be researching all of the many ways online
learning is allowing people to more easily access training at times
convenient to them. It feels like a ‘brave new world’ where
people can more easily learn and share across vast distances
and more easily access needed training and resources. (Joanne
DEBORAH MORGAN has been involved in adult literacy
for the past 20 years as a literacy program coordinator, tutor, instructor,
researcher, writer, program developer and project manager. She is
the author of Writing Out Loud and developed an online program to
train over 75 Writing Out Loud Instructors across Canada and the
United States. Deborah is currently completing her Masters of Distance
Education degree at Athabasca University.