Breathtaking Impact of Volunteers’ Contribution to Non-formal and Informal Literacy Education in Alberta

March 28, 2011

At the National Metropolis 2011 conference this year in Vancouver, I was part of a panel of experts presenting on Family Literacy and the New Canadian. My paper focused on the research I’ve done on Formal, Non-Formal and Informal Learning: The Case of Literacy, Essential Skills and Language Learning in Canada. I’ll post the entire paper shortly, but for now, I wanted to highlight one bit from it that generated some significant discussion.

My point was that when informal and non-formal learning for literacy and language learning are tracked and recorded, we can better see the impact. The example I gave was that in 2009, Alberta Advanced Education and Training, produced Living Literacy: A Literacy Framework for Alberta’s Next Generation Economy. The 19-page report talks about why literacy matters and outlines priority actions for 2009-2013.

Buried on page 12 of the 19-page report is a gem of information that deserves to be highlighted and explored, which is what I did at my presentation in Vancouver. It states that in Alberta,

“In 2008, 2,000 adults were matched with a volunteer tutor who assisted them with basic reading, writing and/or math. On average, these learners received 39 hours of tutoring. “

So what does this mean?

It means that volunteers collectively spent 78,000 hours assisting adults with literacy in non-formal and informal learning contexts.

78,000 hours. In one year. In one province.

Let’s put this into perspective.

According to the Government of Alberta, the average student will receive 950 to 1000 hours of instruction per year. Let’s look at that number of 1000 hours for a minute.

A student in school gets 1000 hours per year of instruction.

That means, collectively in Alberta, volunteers contributed the equivalent of 78 years of school, in the form of non-formal and informal education, helping other adults to improve their literacy skills.

That’s over three-quarters of a century in the equivalent of school years.

Doesn’t that just take your breath away?

Often when people think of adult non-formal and informal education, they think of developing countries, where formal education is harder to access than in developed nations. But the impact of non-formal and informal education in nations like Canada is significant. The problem is that we don’t track it. At least, not very often. And not very systematically.

What would we discover if every Canadian province, every US state and every developed country tracked the contributions made to language learning and literacy in the way that the Alberta government did in 2008? We’d be blown away by the results.

There’s a big push in the non-profit and education world to capture learner stories. I completely agree with that. But it’s not the whole picture. There’s a saying in evaluation: No numbers without stories; no stories without numbers.

The equivalent of 78 years of schooling, contributed completely by volunteers in one year alone is staggering.

One call to action in my presentation in Vancouver is that we must make a concerted effort to track the number of hours contributed by our volunteers – particularly those working in rural and remote areas – in order to understand the impact of volunteer literacy tutoring programs.

Stay tuned for the whole paper. It’ll be posted on line in a few days.

Related posts:

Formal, non-formal and informal learning: The case of literacy and language learning in Canada

Formal, non-formal and informal education: What Are the Differences?

Formal, Non-formal and Informal Learning: A podcast

Formal, Non-formal and Informal Learning (Infographic)


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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