The federal government recently announced it has invested $1.6 million in a project that will create online resources for those trying to improve literacy in the workplace.

Human Resources and Social Development Canada said it would provide funding to National Adult Literacy Data (NALD), a Fredericton-based organization that will put the money towards a forthcoming workplace literacy and essential skills clearinghouse and portal. The system was described as an Internet database of resources, such as program information, research, teaching materials, assessment tools, best practices, events and contacts. NALD already functions as a digital library of literacy-related materials. It also provides development help, maintenance and hosting for dozens of Web sites for other literacy organizations across Canada. Charles Ramsey, NALD’s executive director, said the federal funding will essentially allow for an expansion of the organization’s mandate, though he said workplace literacy addresses a specific set of challenges.

“In a science lab, my literacy rate would drop to about zero. The same is true of people in the workplace – they get in with low-level jobs but those jobs will disappear as we come up with better ways to do things,” he said. “People don’t have the education to move up the continuum. Analytical skills, document reading of charts and blueprints will be shuffled off.”

Technology, of course, demands a particular degree of literacy, Ramsey said, as even taxi cabs get outfitted with digital keypads connected to back-end systems. “A lot of that stuff is invisible to us, the people who use those services, but always the skill level is inching up to do what, at one point, were pretty menial jobs.”

NALD already sees more than nine million user sessions on its servers and five million downloads of PDF files, but Ramsey said it has more than enough capacity to deal with the additional traffic a workplace literacy portal will create. The investment will instead be used to support the increased storage demands of such a portal and the processing power needed to handle increasingly complex database searches. NALD develops its IT infrastructure in house, primarily using open source software which it contributes back to the community.

“When you get into things like remote management of Web sites, some of that software costs big bucks,” he said, referencing commercial products from Microsoft and other vendors. “We don’t have that kind of money.”

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