Connecting with Learners (from a Distance)

Posted:23 March 2020

Author: Emily Robinson Leclair, Community Learning Network

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Comments: 7

Recommendations: 1

Last week certainly threw us all a curveball.

As I waded through information about social distancing and an ongoing inventory of toilet paper, my inbox was flooded with information on online learning platforms and transitioning learners to online learning. All of it is great information and yet I spent the better part of the week feeling overwhelmed. Instead of focusing on what I don’t know, I thought I should start with what I do know about adult learning.

We do know that Malcolm Knowles proposed a set of four principles of andragogy:

1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction

2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities

3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life

4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented

(The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, copyright 1970 by Malcolm S. Knowles)

In rereading this list, I am reminded of the most important aspect of this work. Community Adult Learning Programs are learner-centered. We don’t need to know what every learner needs or wants. Instead we should simply ask and listen.There have been great suggestions on the CALP Portal about how CALP staff are engaging learners as we venture into the new normal:

“I'm utilizing the free tools and to automate a process where learners can reach out to me.” Tammy Nischuk at SAIL (Strathmore and Area Adult Inclusive Learning).

“Instructors started contacting clients by various means. Since many of our clients don't have access to computers, especially now that the libraries are closed, we are using social media and texting.” Michelle Gietz at Brooks Community Adult Learning Council.

A recent Global News article raised some important considerations about accessibility when we move connecting and learning online.

“Wi-Fi access remains poor in some parts of rural Canada, and about 6.5 per cent of Canadians report they don’t have access to the internet at home…Many students rely on their (smart phone) data plan for internet. That’s not ideal for long periods."

This infographic How Are Canadians Staying Connected? offers greater detail about these users:

  •         78% sent messages using an instant messaging app
  •         52% made online voice calls or video calls
  •         75% used social networking websites or apps

Social Media blogThese statistics support the ways in which CALP staff have begun to connect with learners: WhatsApp, Facebook, Google Hangouts, Zoom, FaceTime, email, texting and telephone. I think this is yet another opportunity to showcase the strengths-based approach of CALPs across the province. They are using a variety of ways to connect with learners based on (a) what works for the learner and (b) what their staff and volunteers feel comfortable using.

Staff are also adapting their approach as they go. It is true that we often do our best learning when we encounter a challenge:

"As instructors we can’t assume that our learners have current technology to move to a full online platform. I attempted to have my learners use Zoom; sadly, some do not have the technology to accommodate Zoom. Most have old smart phones and none have recent operating systems on computers at home." Shannon Yates at Willow Creek Community Adult Learning Society.

Kelsey Lievers, Medicine Hat College A.B.L.E. program, suggests asking the following questions when you are connecting with learners and staff:technology

  •         What technology do you have?
  •         What applications are you comfortable using?
  •         Can you text?
  •         Can you send images with text?
  •         Do you use your device to talk to family and friends?

Based on the responses to these questions, you can successfully plan for learning by starting with what participants and staff already know and are familiar with. This allows programs to continue to focus on the primary intended learning objective of that learning opportunity. Don’t underestimate the power of an old school telephone call or exchanging materials through the postal service. 

Ease of Use    System    Accessibility 
Simple     Postal Service    Essential Service
Simple     Telephone Landline or Mobile phone
Moderate  Video Chat Smart device, internet required
Moderately Complex Mobile/computer application Smart device, internet required plus app


As for what learners identify as having immediate relevance and impact on their everyday lives, here we see different approaches with a shared ultimate objective: connection.

"Learners are still reeling from the shock of all the changes. The empty shelves in the grocery stores combined with waiting for monthly support payments, before groceries can be purchased, is scary. I agree that this is a huge opportunity for CALPs to be the community hub, to be the connectors." Monica Sczyrba-Davis at Pincher Creek Community Adult Learning Council Society.

First and foremost, we want to help our learners maintain a tiny but important sense of normalcy during the times of turbulence and help them stay resilient and hopeful. During the times of anxiety, fear and uncertainty, it is important to connect. CanLearn Society blog

As time passes and CALP staff and learners alike adjust to this new normal we are likely to see learning plans shift and change based on challenges, gaps and problems. CLN and other PD providers will be assessing the learning needs in the system as CALPs do the same for learners in their communities. Together we will be responsive and offer ‘just in time’ learning. You will likely observe that we too start with what we know, keep it simple and learn from our own mistakes. 

In this period of transition, there is value in taking time to pause, reflecting on your own needs and those of your community and collaborating with peers across the province. And if you are like me and feel slightly overwhelmed by this transition – take heart. The Violence and Learning Network provides some wise guidance:

When we are in crisis, it‘s hard to take a step back so we can breathe and maybe even look at our situation in a new way. Thinking about what's going on can feel intimidating, painful, and sometimes useless - we just want everything to stop!

But, if we are gentle with ourselves, when we are ready, it can be so helpful to just play around with ideas a bit - try out some ways of expressing ourselves, experiment with different ways of thinking.

As you play, please feel free to share those ideas in the comments below. 

Emily Robinson Leclair


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