In January of this year, Good Learning Anywhere and Matawa First Nations Education Council launched a pilot program with participating communities in remote Northwest Ontario.  The goal of the program is to help community members attain their GED and to pursue careers in the various trades.  GLA is the first step among many that these learners will be taking on their journey.

While I have been part of this project from the start, I feel the story that our instructors can tell is much more relevant and a real testament to what Good Learning Anywhere tries to achieve and stands for.  The blood, sweat and tears that the three instructors put into this project is reflected in the incredibly moving feedback and progress that the participants have made.

I asked Julie Mallon and Stephanie Park to take a moment to reflect on the challenges and triumphs that they faced: as with all pilots, this project has had it’s ups and downs, but the ups outweigh the downs by a tonne.

Tragic Circumstances – Very early on in this project, one community was faced with two tragedies that could have had crippling effects on the learners.  In early February, Jordan Wabasse, 16, went missing.  The tragedy was relived again when Jordan’s body was discovered early this month.  Shortly after Jordan’s disappearance, the community experienced another tragedy when it lost one of their youngest members, an infant.  Despite the tragedy, the learners came to class, determined to continue on their learning path. The tragedies hit the small, close-knit community hard.  To honour the lives lost and the community itself, learners and instructors reflected that week, sharing stories and showing support for the grieving families.

Freezing Cold – Learners from one community stood outside their learning centre for an hour, on a cold March night, waiting to be let into their class.  Stephanie points out that these learners never give up on nights when the  internet connection acts up and they continually are booted out of class over and over again.  Now that’s dedication.

The Laughter – one of the most striking things about our classes is the laughter.  An elearn blogger wrote recently that the biggest key in distance education is laughter: once you have them laughing, you’ve got ‘em hooked.  For example, Stephanie relates this incident, and I dare you not to chuckle: “I called them “folks” one night and they thought that meant they were old, I suggested I’d use ‘peeps’ from now on, they suggested ‘homeys’.”

Exploring the Unknown – one of the greatest moments we see in our classes, is the moment when learners realize that our classes are a safe place to explore.  When learners are “rocking it out on the drama nights by taking on some fantastic, emotionally charged roles”, you know that heart and soul is being given to each and every class.

Sharing – The remarkable thing about this group of learners is their openness and willingness to share a bit of their world with their instructor.  Stephanie has never physically met any of these learners, but she knows what their community and classroom looks like, and has even been sent some personal photos.  Yet, the connection goes much deeper than sharing pictures; learners have shared short stories, letters and very personal stories with our instructors.  To be a part of their story is an honour indeed.

Chat, Email and Everything Else – One of the most challenging things about teaching online is effectively communicating with the learners–at least that is what critics of distance education might say. However, at GLA, we strive to overcome this potential obstacle: the software that we teach with allows everyone to communicate in so many different ways that there is always at least one method a learner feels comfortable with. Stephanie notes that with her group, they aren’t big microphone users, so it’s a pretty quiet class. However, text chat is always hopping as learners are constantly sending messages to her and other learners. The other place that gets a lot of action is the whiteboard, which provides a blank space for the learners to type on, draw on, highlight on, etc. There is continuous participation between instructor and learner and interaction between learners as well.

The interaction doesn’t stop once class is done either! Stephanie was astonished at how wonderful these learners are with using email. She comments, “I’ve been getting a ton of assignments both emailed and faxed to me–more than any other group I have taught.” They also email her to let her know if they are unable to make class, and even once emailed when they were at the centre and having trouble logging in to let her know they were there. It was only because they took the time and cared to do that, that we were able to troubleshoot  the problem with them and essentially save the remainder of class.

Learning Outside The Project Box – As a project, with set courses, schedules and expectations, project participants are given their class schedule and that is generally what they stick to.  The project learners don’t have much contact with the mainstream GLA learner, as their classes have been set up for a specific purpose.  In February though, to honour Family Day, GLA held a writing contest, where all  learners were invited to explore what family means to them.  Two learners from Matawa joined that contest and submitted beautiful writings on their families.  Our NHL Hockey Pool is no different.  Not only are 6 learners participating, one learner even consulted online stats to make his picks! Now that is learning outside of the project box!

As the learners are getting ready to take another step in their journey, I want to thank the instructors, Stephanie and Julie.  Bridging distances, breaking down barriers and developing skills is what we are here to do: you have done that and so much more.  You have been a part of a journey that has only just begun, but I know that these learners are now equipped and ready for the next challenge.

Chi miigwech, friends.