Government invests $1.6M in online literacy project

The federal government Monday 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 be providing the funding to the 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 thing 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, 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.”

NALD-hosted Web sites include that of the Adult Basic Education Association of British Columbia. Its president, Yvonne Chard, said the organization provides NALD updates for posting and development upgrades as needed. She said the NALD library is an invaluable resource, though it could do with some improvements to its navigation and search engine.

“If you don’t know where to look, it’s not always the easiest (to use),” she said, giving an example of a document she hunted down that she knew had to be stored somewhere. “If I couldn’t find it and I knew it was in there, how would it turn up for someone who didn’t know?”

The funding to NALD comes barely a week after the federal government released a detailed list of program funding cuts to meet debt reduction targets. This included a $17.7 million cut to the Adult Learning, Literacy and Essential Skills Program that affects all provincial literacy funding in Canada.


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