AlphaRoute

Country Profile: Canada

Population

34,994,000 (2013, UNESCO)

Official Languages

English and French.

Poverty (population living on less than US $ 1.25 per day)

9.6% (2007–2011, UNICEF)

Adult literacy rate (15 years and over)

PIAAC test results: percentage of adults scoring at each proficiency level in literacy (level 1 represents the lowest level of proficiency, level 5 the highest):

  • Below level 1: 3.8 %
  • Level 1: 12.6%
  • Level 2: 31.7%
  • Level 3: 37.3%
  • Level 4: 12.8%
  • Level 5: 0.9%
Statistical sources

Programme Overview

Programme TitleAlphaRoute
Implementing OrganizationAlphaPlus
Language of InstructionEnglish, French and deaf sign language
FundingOntario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (formerly the literacy branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training)
Programme PartnersCanada National Literacy Secretariat; Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities; Ontario Ministry of Education and Training; the Independent Learning Centre; the Knowledge Connection Corporation; George Brown College; the Community Advisory of Anglophone, Francophone and Deaf Educators; Réseau Interaction Network; and AlphaPlus
Annual Programme CostsC$60 million
(Annual programme cost per learner: approx. C$1,500)
Date of Inception1996

Country Context and Background

Canada’s education system is widely regarded as among the world’s best. Canada is one of the top three countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in terms of per capita spending on post-secondary education, and students in all jurisdictions score consistently high on international tests. Education in each of Canada’s provinces and territories has three tiers: elementary, secondary, and post-secondary. All provide free, universal elementary and secondary schooling for Canadian students.

AlphaRoute was launched in 1996. Its mission was to support adults who were unable to attend conventional classroom-based courses to access literacy learning. The 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey prompted the federal government to set priorities for adult literacy and to make funding available to support provincial governments in addressing them, contributing to the creation of programmes such as AlphaRoute. AlphaRoute’s solution to the problem was to create an improved distance learning offer, through its primary online literacy programme.

AlphaRoute began in 1996 as a pre-pilot project called Literacy Students as Online Learners. A scaled-down, stand-alone version of AlphaRoute can be found on the Ontario government’s Employment Ontario website: http://www.tcu.gov.on.ca/eng/training/literacy/flexible.html

Programme Overview

Beginning life in 1996 as a pre-pilot project called Literacy Students as Online Learners, AlphaRoute was devised as a distance learning website to enable adult literacy learners to benefit from the emerging e-learning culture and to meet other learners online. It was developed for the Anglophone, Deaf, Aboriginal and Francophone streams of Ontario’s Literacy and Basic Skills programme, which helps adults in the province develop and apply literacy, numeracy and digital skills. Some 20,594 adult literacy learners and 1,861 mentors registered to use AlphaRoute in the period between 2001 and 2011. AlphaPlus became involved in the programme in 1998 and assumed management of it in 2000.

AlphaRoute was never used purely on a distance learning basis, however. Funding criteria meant that agencies were paid only for the time during which students were physically present on-site. While the programme was certainly used from a distance, it was not possible to properly study and document that use.

AlphaRoute was, therefore, used primarily on-site and in blended delivery models, while the tracking of student hours spent online was explored by the funders. In 2008 the funders decided to invest in a different distance delivery model, called e-Channel, and funding for AlphaRoute was withdrawn, meaning it was only possible to maintain work already developed.

Aims and Objectives

AlphaRoute was devised, in part, as a research project to determine if technology-enabled literacy education could promote learners’ skills development and independence. Its objectives included:

This picture is taken from AlphaRoute´s first online learning environment

This picture is taken from AlphaRoute´s first online learning environment

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

Textbooks, web-based materials, internet access, various software programmes, and other web-based resources were used alongside AlphaRoute in a blended learning approach. The programme incorporated both distance learning and on-site study. As it developed, different delivery models were used and text-based resources were developed to complement AlphaRoute activities. Commercial software CD resources were used to assess students’ readiness for online learning. These resources, which became accessible to adult literacy programmes in the early 2000s, complemented the online AlphaRoute content, which extended computer-based learning into online learning.

The AlphaRoute access site. At one point, each cultural stream had its own AlphaRoute site. However, in 2005, the Anglophone, Aboriginal and Deaf sites were merged into one. The ‘Deaf Resources’ (bottom right) are the AlphaRoute online activities developed for the Deaf stream. The direct URL for AlphaRoute access is: <http://199.71.28.160/>

The AlphaRoute access site. At one point, each cultural stream had its own AlphaRoute site. However, in 2005, the Anglophone, Aboriginal and Deaf sites were merged into one. The ‘Deaf Resources’ (bottom right) are the AlphaRoute online activities developed for the Deaf stream. The direct URL for AlphaRoute access is: http://199.71.28.160/

Activities

AlphaRoute engaged learners in a range of activities which varied in terms both of content and function. These included what were, at the time, new digital skills, such as drag and drop, clicking on radio buttons, basic keyboarding, and accessing the web to undertake research. The content was suitable to Canadian users and adjusted to the reading levels of the students on the programme. Audio support was included for all activities at levels 1 and 2 and was available as an option at the other three levels. Many activities also included video support – a significant innovation in the years before the launch of YouTube in 2005. In general, activities aimed to develop skills useful in a literacy learning environment. For example, by engaging in an activity involved trip planning and documenting, learners would be engaged in developing skills relevant to geography, mathematics, research, and critical thinking and observation.

A full curriculum was never developed. However, a tool for developing student learning plans allowed teachers to search and add activities to students’ individual learning plans. Some activities were automatically updated, while teachers graded and provided feedback on others.

The level of activities, including the length of sentences and the type of vocabulary used, were generally made appropriate to each level of study. The freedom to choose activities, to complete them at one’s own pace, and to repeat them if necessary, were also components key to the success of the programme.

After the pilot phase, when AlphaRoute was in full development, a matrix was rolled out for five levels and incorporated into AlphaRoute’s learning management system. Community content developers were funded to create learning activities to match the matrix levels and content areas.

Discussions

Early on in AlphaRoute’s development, there were three discussion areas in a part of the learning environment called ‘the café’. All three were designed to provide students with a place to learn transferable skills and to interact online with their peers. During the pilot phase, learners based in different places and working at different levels formed communities of interest within which they exchanged pieces of writing, offered critical, yet supportive, feedback on each other´s work, and engaged in debate. This early use of the Café discussion areas was supported by the pilot mentors. In the next phase, after the pilot, online learners took more control. They found the discussion forums useful as places to meet and engage with other students from across Ontario. Some took ownership of the forums, facilitating the content and the flow of the discussions. It was exciting to see learners making the discussion space their own and using it in a creative way. Learner-generated content to emerge included a mystery novel and two chain stories (stories told by a number of different authors). One learner explored with others ways to be healthy, while another became a host of ‘chat parties’. This area became, in effect, the learner development area of AlphaRoute.

Cyber Search

In the first stage of AlphaRoute’s development, an internet search activity was presented every two weeks , often with audio and visual support, to engage AlphaRoute learners in using the web to search for information. Eventually, a standard set of search activities was developed and made available so that learners could access them at any time in the Cyber Search area of the site. Learners were introduced to a topic and/or website and invited to conduct research on it, reporting their findings in the discussion area. In later versions of AlphaRoute, set discussion topics were dropped and topics of interest introduced as required, according to need or interest.

Chat

The WebBoard platform provided one basic chat room, with an option for private chat. It meant learners had a live, real-time place in which to meet AlphaRoute students from across Ontario and Canada.

On-site support was vital in helping learners, who were often using a username and password for the first time, to sign on to AlphaRoute. It ensured they had safe, guided access to AlphaRoute, orientating them to their new learning environment, and making links between their goals as learners and what online learning can offer. Help and support was available as needed and requested. There was also technical support for educators, accessible via a toll-free line to AlphaPlus. This proved critical to the success of the programme. Learners, on-site and distance mentors, and facilitators all commented on the need for quick, reliable and friendly access, on demand.

Short Online Courses

In 2005, AlphaRoute changed its content development criteria, moving away from hard-coded Flash-based activities and using the discussion forums to develop and deliver short four-week online courses. Learners and educators were enthusiastic about the courses, but found the discussion platform unsuitable for online course delivery. AlphaPlus began to explore learning management systems and developed a number of online courses for AlphaRoute students using the Moodle learning platform. Between 2006 and 2008, 24 online courses were developed and delivered by contracted adult literacy educators. Funding for these courses stopped in 2009 when Ontario’s e-Channel distance literacy learning initiative was launched. AlphaRoute’s online courses served as an platform from which learners and educators could do more distance learning courses online, including courses that were purely distance learning. It taught them the time-management and goal-focused skills required in online learning.

Innovation in AlphaRoute

AlphaRoute was unique in Canada, particularly in the period between 1996 and 2008, because it did all of the following:

AlphaRoute Training

After the pilot phase, when AlphaRoute was rolled out to the Ontario literacy field, mentor and administrator training was delivered using a synchronous (meaning teachers and students had to be online at the same time) e-classroom called Saba Centra. The delivery of online training was fairly new to adult educators and using Saba Centra to deliver AlphaRoute training created a level of expectation for online learning at programme management level. Later on, AlphaPlus provided AlphaRoute training via CD-ROM and other support resources, including AlphaRoute user guides. The guides provided a comprehensive overview of the functions and features of AlphaRoute and how they worked, as well as basic technical troubleshooting guidance. Five PDF guides were available to registered mentors, via a Mentor Toolkit link within AlphaRoute.

The Mentor Toolkit was a support and management site for AlphaRoute mentors. It included links to the students’ portfolio results, word lists, registration and assessment tools, the user guides, the Café area, email facilities, and the AlphaRoute village of learning activities. There was also support information to help mentors and other staff develop the learning activities and better tailor them to the learning aims of the students.

Agencies could choose how they wanted to receive training through the AlphaRoute learning environment. Options included self-training using the AlphaRoute training CD-ROM and accompanying support resources, face-to-face training in a computer lab environment at the programme’s site, and live Saba Centra training scheduled to suit the needs of the trainees. Much of the initial AlphaRoute mentor and administrator training was delivered live and recorded online using Saba Centra by AlphaPlus. Saba Centra training is managed by training network Contact North: (http://www.elearntube.ca/video/470/e-Channel-Guided-Tour)

The agencies’ choice of options was determined by whether or not staff on-site were already using AlphaRoute and could support newer mentors. As educators became more ‘web-savvy’, the need for intense AlphaRoute training declined. And as more and more literacy resources became available online, use of AlphaRoute began to decline, with the site used less as a learning management system and more as a repository of online learning activities.

Enrolment of Learners

AlphaRoute engaged a wide range of vulnerable and hard-to-reach learners, including deaf adults, adults with disabilities, adults living in isolated areas, and adults whose schedules did not permit them to participate in conventional courses. The learners were adult literacy students on funded programmes, introduced to online learning through AlphaRoute by their programme staff. Funders encouraged literacy programmes to introduce students to AlphaRoute and to support their ongoing engagement with the site as a way of furthering the development of online learning in funded literacy programmes. Between 2000 and 2001, AlphaPlus delivered training to literacy programme staff in an effort to encourage them to register their students, while funders offered financial incentives to programmes to promote AlphaRoute use and increase student numbers.

AlphaRoute was launched to the Ontario Anglophone and Francophone literacy communities in 2000 and to the Aboriginal and Deaf literacy communities in 2001. The site was customized to their needs.

AlphaRoute was launched to the Ontario Anglophone and Francophone literacy communities in 2000 and to the Aboriginal and Deaf literacy communities in 2001. The site was customized to their needs.

The recruitment strategy for the AlphaRoute pilot made use of flyers, inserts in local papers, radio advertisements, community facilitators, word of mouth, walk-ins, posters, open houses, door-to-door campaigns, local workshops, and follow-up with key contacts.

Monitoring and Evaluation of the Programme

AlphaPlus was required to report the number of new learners who registered to use AlphaRoute each year to the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, which usually set an annual target of 2,000 new registrations. Evaluation was data-based and informed the future funding of distance learning within adult literacy in Ontario, as well as its long-term direction. At the literacy programme level, the Ministry’s monitoring included assessment of the numbers of students using AlphaRoute, as well as learning gains in the area of computer use. When the online courses were introduced, students who wanted to earn a completion certificate for each course were required to answer a four-question evaluation. The data from all students was compiled and analyzed by AlphaPlus staff and reported to the Ministry.

The mentors were not evaluated by AlphaPlus, other than in the initial piloting, because their responsibility was at the individual programme/agency level where they were supported and matched with learners. AlphaPlus was, however, able to monitor the numbers of mentors by programme and interact with them during training and through online support, as required.

AlphaPlus staff coordinated the development of content, training and online support for AlphaRoute, and ensured it was of a high quality. The literacy agencies oversaw the use of AlphaRoute by their staff, volunteers and learners, while AlphaPlus registered mentors and learners on behalf of the agencies.

AlphaRoute was developed on an access database and later attempts to upgrade this database were not funded. This limited the amount of data that could be accessed for the purposes of monitoring and evaluation. AlphaRoute was project-funded with annual reporting usually based on the number of new content activities developed, the number of new learners and mentors registered, and, later, feedback on online course numbers and evaluations. AlphaRoute was also usually funded to supply research data and information on trends, and the resulting reports provided further data for evaluation.

Assessment Methods and Instruments

Learners wanted prompt feedback on how they had done in the activities. Some said they were learning faster because the system told them immediately when they had made a mistake and highlighted the mistake in a different colour. On the French language site, when learners made mistakes, they were told ‘bel effort’ (beautiful effort), and directed to try again or to get advice from a mentor. Learners liked this – it validated their efforts, even when they made mistakes. They felt encouraged to try again.

Students were also able to use a web-based assessment resource – the AlphaRoute Placement Tool (APT) – which they could work through at their own pace to determine when they had reached their skill level in reading, writing and numeracy activities. Mentors or administrators could register students to access the tool independently of their registration in AlphaRoute. The initial intent was to assess the students’ ability and comfort with learning online to determine whether AlphaRoute was right for them and, if so, what level of activities should be included in their AlphaRoute learning portfolio. The APT was intended to stand apart from AlphaRoute. However, over time, it was incorporated into the learning environment. APT ceased to be available when AlphaPlus stopped managing AlphaRoute in 2012.

Online and phone surveys, carried out during 2002–03, found that practitioners valued AlphaRoute, but that they struggled with some of the technological requirements and with the time demands of learning fully about the resource. At the same time, an AlphaPlus study of AlphaRoute adult literacy learners reported high levels of satisfaction with AlphaRoute as a learning environment and highlighted the transferable skills gained as a result of online learning.

Impact and Achievements

The majority of learners were soon able to sign on and navigate the website. Within six online sessions, they reported being comfortable with the site, that they understood the various tools and that they were able to decide what to do and where to go next. Students learned to become less reliant on face-to-face teaching and benefited from the emphasis on guided independent learning. Facilitators directed students to appropriate resources and tasks, leading to learning outcomes that enabled them to use information and communication technologies.

In Ontario, the 304 adult education centres undertake all Ministry-funded adult literacy programmes in the province. AlphaPlus was able to track the number of learners and mentors at each centre and used that data to plan promotion, training and content development. The centre data was also used by the Ministry to track the integration of online learning by agency. When AlphaPlus stopped managing AlphaRoute, it shared the cumulative national statistics for AlphaRoute usage, as stated in the table below. The ‘cumulative’ number of learners for Ontario refers to the total number of learners from all 304 centres over a 10 year period (the same for mentors).

Lessons Learned

AlphaRoute was conceived, developed and delivered to adult literacy programmes in Ontario, and eventually across Canada, as an online learning environment intended to introduce and support adult students and educators in experiencing and benefiting from online and distance learning. Throughout its pilot phase and after, until at least 2005, AlphaRoute was a unique learning environment. It was sought after by other provinces as a source of accessible online literacy activities. As more online learning activities were developed commercially, as well as by the not-for-profit sector, demand for AlphaRoute diminished.

Nevertheless, AlphaRoute acted as an introduction to online learning for a significant number of adult learners and educators across Canada. It was funded and developed as part of a National Literacy Secretariat and Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities strategy to ensure that literacy programmes and their staff and learners kept pace with the emerging digital world. AlphaRoute laid the foundations for e-Channel, the current delivery system for adult literacy distance learning in Ontario. It also, in its early stages, inspired many American adult literacy educators to developing their own online learning environments, notably the Learner Web (http://www.learnerweb.org/infosite/index.html) and USA Learns (http://www.usalearns.org/).

AlphaRoute introduced educators and students to the potential of learning management systems. It also provided opportunities for seasoned educators to apply their expertise in literacy content development to online learning by creating the online content for the programme. The strategy developed by the MInistry and the National Literacy Secretariat for the delivery of AlphaRoute ensured simultaneous capacity investment in Ontario’s literacy field by engaging educators in the content development, piloting, administration and delivery of online learning, while, at the same time, providing opportunities for learners to explore and extend their capacity to learn online. The result was a significant move forward in terms of the literacy programmes’ engagement in online learning.

Funding arrangements for AlphaRoute often included a research component, posing questions about the level of interest in online learning, its efficacy and its impact on adult literacy learners. Numerous research reports resulted, informing decisions about funding, distance delivery and online content development not only in Ontario but also in other jurisdictions that looked to AlphaRoute for trends and possibilities.

Although it has now been significantly scaled down and is no longer managed by AlphaPlus, a standalone version of AlphaRoute is still available to literacy learners. AlphaPlus continues to receive feedback from Ontario-based literacy staff and students about the programme’s impact and usefulness.

Challenges

AlphaRoute presented a range of challenges to educators and learners over the years of its development and its subsequent roll-out. This was hardly surprising given that it was, in the early years at least, a cutting-edge tool, being introduced in Canada for the first time. These are a few of the challenges the programme encountered:

Sustainability

AlphaRoute ran for more than a decade and was the first online initiative of Ontario’s Literacy and Basic Skills Programme. In May 2011, AlphaPlus discontinued the AlphaRoute programme. Users were directed to a selection of activities on a public version of AlphaRoute called AlphaRoute Access.

Sources

Contact Details

Nancy Friday
Senior e-Learning and Educational Technology Consultant (formerly AlphaRoute Coordinator) AlphaPlus
161 Eglinton Ave East, Suite 704, Toronto, ON M4P 1J5, Canada
Tel: (+1) 416.322.1012; 1.800.788.1120. Ext. 305
Email: nfriday (at) alphaplus.ca
http://www.tcu.gov.on.ca/eng/training/literacy/flexible.html