Keeping students off the books in LBS: Older adults who want to go online

I was speaking to a literacy program coordinator the other day who told me how she keeps some students off the books in order to work with them in her program. These stowaway learners are older, usually retired adults who want to develop their digital literacy. Keeping them off the books means she doesn’t register them in the ministry reporting system and doesn’t inform her ministry representative (called an Employment Training Consultant) that the learners are in her program.

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Her comment is a timely insight into the way current LBS targets play out in programs. I previously wrote about age group targets. The older adult group has always been quite small, a mere 3-4% of learners over the years. I never really gave that low rate of participation much thought, and simply assumed older adults had little interest in attending a program. It’s stunted thinking on my part. How could an older adult become interested when they only see promotional materials targeting literacy development for work or education, and don’t see themselves or anything related to what want to learn on flyers or websites (of course, they may never see these)? Or, more importantly, how could they become interested when none of their peers share their positive experiences of being in a program considering word of mouth is the most common way people hear about programs in their communities?

So why did this coordinator decide not to officially register older adults in her program? Likely because they are perceived to be a liability in the context of the LBS reporting system and its accompanying targets. Retired learners without employment goals simply aren’t valued learners in the LBS system, as they don’t help a program meet its targets. They have neither a short-term employment goal, nor a goal to enter a secondary or postsecondary program, which can eventually lead to employment. For years, LBS programs were given the message that personal learning, or what is referred to as independence goals, was not valued. Not surprisingly, the number of learners with those goals began to shrink. But did the actual number of people with personal learning goals shrink or did those aspirations simply get re-categorized to meet the targets? It’s hard to say.

While working in a program, it was quite easy for me to stretch a personal learning goal to fit into the more acceptable further education or employment categories. For example, if a student wasn’t working but wanted to register to prepare to write a driver’s test so she could drive her kids to school, I saw that as an employment goal. After all, having a licence could be something required in a future job. Or perhaps a parent wanted to better understand the school system that her children are in, attend parent-teacher meetings and read all of the correspondence from school rather than having her children interpret the messages. While the learner isn’t necessarily interested in going to school herself, she wants to learn about the system. That sounds like a further education goal to me.

The coordinator who kept the learners off the books likely could have fit her learners’ personal learning aspirations into a more countable category.  Ah, you’re interested in learning…online. Isn’t that simply online learning? Sounds like a further education goal to me. Or, perhaps the learner volunteers regularly. Well that is unpaid work in my books, and your interest in developing your digital literacy may support your volunteer work so that’s an employment goal. But maybe not all feel as comfortable making such broad interpretations. So now we are left with the real reason to keep people off the books: their age.

One could argue that LBS is under Employment Ontario, an entity primarily concerned with supporting labour market development. By extension then, the LBS system is primarily interested in supporting adults of working age and not retired adults. Why shouldn’t the system target certain age groups over others based on age? And subtly dissuade older learners? Hmmm…does that mean a publicly funded learning system for adults discriminates based on age? This doesn’t seem like such a good counter argument. What is also lost in this thinking is that the provincial literacy program’s force fit into an employment entity has always been a square peg. The majority of learners in the system are not interested in short-term employment related learning but are in programs to develop academic literacy and access further education—lifelong learning really. Discriminating against true lifelong learners then becomes even more questionable.

Here’s one more thing to consider. Digital literacy is quickly becoming a necessity for commerce, work and government interaction. While we can still decide whether to spend our money at the store or online, and older learners are not so concerned with keeping up with technological demands in the workplace, they will soon have no choice about how they interact with the province in order to access integral services.

Ontario recently announced its new “action plan” to move all services online, and eventually close those in-person Service Ontario centres, although they didn’t say as much. Similar to other jurisdictions around the world, the move to online services is a cost-saving exercise that leads to the elimination of in-person access.

The government states that 90% of Ontarians “use the internet regularly to make purchases, find information, learn new skills and interact,” suggesting that Ontarians are in full support of their efforts. What they neglect to mention is that one of the things people don’t do online is access government services, never mind the other 10% who don’t even use the internet regularly, often because they simply don’t have sustainable and affordable access.

While a recent Ipsos survey found that 91% of Canadians have access at home, it also states that only 17% of Canadians currently use government websites, and only 18% search for a job online. If we look at the data a little more, we can see that those who are considered “low and very low” intensity internet users are the very group that the literacy program coordinator kept off the books: older adults who are retired and with lower incomes (often living outside urban areas). Those who could benefit the most from literacy and digital learning support services can’t access them from the publicly funded literacy program here in Ontario.

I don’t know if the coordinator was actually told not to work with older learners or simply felt too vulnerable to officially work with this group. Either way it’s a problem. The publicly funded adult learning program, designed to work with those most in need of learning opportunities, is not actually accessible to all. The author of a recent article argues that older adults “have been left out of the technology conversation.” In Ontario, it seems like they have been intentionally pushed aside.

You may be asking what this has to do with the main aim of the blog to examine the use of international literacy testing. There is indeed a connection.

Stowaway learners are the direct result of government services becoming more concerned with realizing a return on investment than providing basic and equitable access and supports to ameliorate existing inequities. This current thinking goes beyond demonstrating efficiency, accountability and transparency. Services like literacy and adult learning must have a pay-off. Will the money spent on individuals lead to economic productivity? Will those adults end up working, paying taxes, and contributing to some bottom line measure of economic worth? If not, they simply don’t count and aren’t deserving of government funded services. The international literacy testing project and its spin-offs are perceived to be the most effective way of measuring individual economic worth and, by extension, providing evidence of the government’s return on investment. After all, the primary interest of the OECD in promoting the testing initiative, and now its own individual spin-off test, is not to support actual reading and literacy development but to have a means to categorize and evaluate people’s economic productivity potential.

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