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Concordia’s literacy tools are a key part of the Government of Quebec’s new online learning portal for the pandemic

IITS and CSLP overcome technical hurdles to make the award-winning software available through Open School
April 9, 2020
There are currently 1.5 billion children in 165 countries around the world who are out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. | Photo by McKaela Lee on Unsplash
There are currently 1.5 billion children in 165 countries around the world who are out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. | Photo by McKaela Lee on Unsplash

For many parents of school-aged children, the coronavirus pandemic is an incredible trial. First, there’s the baseline stress from being cooped up and worrying about falling ill. Plus, many are juggling childcare and working from home for the first time.

And then there’s the background concern that kids are missing out on the foundational skills they would normally be getting in school. It’s one thing for parents to know how crucial literacy skills are to success in school and life, but quite another to know what and how to teach them.

This has suddenly become a global problem, says Philip Abrami, former director of Concordia’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance (CSLP).

“Right now, there are 1.5 billion children in 165 countries around the world who are out of school,” he explains. “Everyone at every level, from schools to governments to NGOs, is trying to provide homeschooling alternatives. Because the realistic prognosis is that this could go on for many, many months.”

Quebec’s plan draws on Concordia resources

Responding as quickly as possible, the Government of Quebec created the École Ouverte, or Open School in English. The free online portal is a repository of “thousands of resources for learning, creating, having fun and staying active, just like at school,” writes Minister of Education and Higher Education Jean-François Roberge on the site.

In creating the portal under such extreme time constraints, says Abrami, the government was particularly looking for anything they could post immediately. From the CSLP, they were most interested in ABRACADABRA and READS. Those tools are the two most popular of the five that make up the Learning Toolkit (LTK+) — a computer-based interface developed and refined over the past two decades by Concordia’s pedagogical experts at the centre, led by Abrami.

ABRACADABRA supports beginning readers from kindergarten to grade three (ages five to nine) through dozens of engaging interactive activities and stories. The Repository of Ebooks And Digital Stories, or READS, is a database of more than 600 free stories (or 2,500 plus when considering multiple languages of the same book) from 13 countries. It’s designed as a supplement to ABRACADABRA to help develop students’ fluency and comprehension skills. And, crucially during this pandemic of indeterminate length, it will also supply children and parents with fresh reading material.

Abrami explains that many learning tools and apps teach and reinforce one aspect of literacy. “What is very important and special about ABRACADABRA is that we take a comprehensive view of those skills and sub-skills that emerging readers must acquire to become successful. And we find ways to integrate them, so that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.”

The evidence-based methodology is also evidence proven: among 20 validation studies of ABRACADABRA performed around the globe, emerging readers had positive outcomes in every case.

‘We quadrupled the horsepower’

Given their efficacy, ABRACADABRA, which includes first- and second-language instruction in both English and French, has enjoyed widespread popularity. The Learning Toolkit Plus has been used over the years by all nine of Quebec’s English-language school boards, a number of French-language school boards, plus districts in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and New Brunswick.

In the United Kingdom, the success of a pilot project in 60 schools has now doubled its reach. And its rollout in Kenya, which garnered the CSLP and its partners the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize in 2017, has led to that project’s expansion throughout Kenya and into Bangladesh and Rwanda, funded by the Global Partnership for Education.

But in all of those cases, the software is run and managed locally by the school boards. A web version did exist, to accommodate homeschoolers and other children who required additional help at home, but it had limited traffic capacity on the Department of Education’s server at Concordia.

As such, hosting ABRACADABRA and READS on the web through Open School required some fast technical wizardry during a busy time for Concordia’s Instructional and Information Technology Services (IITS), Technical Services from the Education Department, and the CSLP.

“We had to quickly build up a server that can maintain the expected capacity and firm up security around the server, which meant a lot of coding,” explains Alex Aragona, executive director of application portfolio management and chief information security officer at IITS. “Essentially, we quadrupled the horsepower of these tools’ platforms.”

A good thing, too, as demand has already been high. In their first four days online, ABRACADABRA and READS have had more than 30,000 users through the Open School portal, reports Anne Wade, the CSLP’s manager and LTK+ coordinator.

Abrami is very pleased with how the transition was carried out. “Getting this online so quickly has been a huge team effort, from President Graham Carr right on down through many departments. We were all working to meet, initially, the provincial need, but ultimately the national and international need,” he says.

Aragona adds that because schools at this point don’t know when they’re going to reopen, as long as the need is there, the tools will be hosted by IITS. "They can keep developing new features and enhance the product and we will support that development."

While the literacy tools themselves are not changing for now, teacher resources are being enhanced, Abrami notes. “You don’t just make the tools available; you have to provide good ongoing professional development, too. These support materials are part of doing everything we can to help teachers understand the literacy skills they should be developing, how to integrate the software into classrooms and how to address questions that come up in the course of using it,” he says.

“Of course, it’s even more important that we do that now, when the educators are not only the professionals, but also moms and dads.”

The CSLP also hopes to hold webinars so that these parents-turned-teachers across the globe can get guidance and ask questions. It’s all part of supporting parents' wise use of the tools, decreasing their stress and ensuring the next generation thrives.

Find out more about
Concordia’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance and their Learning Toolkit.



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