OLT: The lifelong learning catalyst

Recognizing the need to foster a culture of lifelong learning in this new knowledge-based economy, the federal government established in 1996 the Office of Learning Technologies (OLT) within Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC). OLT is based on an U.S. model that the Americans implemented in the early ’90s when the World Wide Web exploded into our daily lives.

The goal of OLT is to help communities with the most efficient utilization of learning technologies and to promote lifelong learning. The OLT has grown steadily and is now in 300 regional Human Resources Community Centres (HRCC) serving Canadians in every province.

“For six years, OLT has been promoting the use of learning technologies across the country by making international, national and regional resources available through our Web site, meetings, consultations, funding and program initiatives,” said Michael Williamson, acting director of OLT. “We now have four funding initiatives: New Practices in Learning Technologies; Community Learning Networks Initiative; Learning Technologies in the Workplace and the last one we are just rolling-out now is Research in Learning Technologies.”

New practices in learning technologies
The New Practices in Learning Technologies (NPLT) provides support for projects that contribute to a better understanding of learning technologies and how to use and adapt them for adult learners within the educational sector. The NPLT initiative works with partners to expand innovative learning opportunities through technologies.

Projects concentrate on assessing, testing and developing new models related to the use of innovative learning technologies. All NPLT projects focus on adult learners and meet specific program themes, objectives and assessment criteria described in the NPLT Guidelines and Funding Application.

Community learning networks initiative
Since 1998, in partnership with community organizations, The Community Learning Networks (CLN) has supported time-limited pilot projects that offer multi-point access to a variety of learning resources within and across communities.

The pilot projects develop new models or enhance existing exemplary models that other communities can learn from, adapt or build on to promote and increase access to learning opportunities enhanced by technologies. All CLN project stress:
•the use of technologies as tools to support and enable learning and networking;
•a strong community participation or community control at the local level; and
•the promotion of individual and community development.

Learning technologies in the workplace
Learning Technologies in the Workplace (LTW) is a contribution program that provides funds on a cost-shared basis for projects that expand opportunities for learning and skills development in the workplace through the implementation of technology-enabled learning solutions for workers.

The aim of LTW is to strengthen the workplace by capitalizing on the potential of technology-enhanced learning in order to develop and maintain a skilled workforce capable of adapting to the rapidly changing global marketplace. Project activities contribute to enhancing the employability of workers, productivity and competitiveness, thereby improving overall quality of life.

Research in learning technologies
Research in Learning Technologies (RLT) provides funding for any of the three aforementioned initiatives where research is required. A good example of work done with RLT funding is, “the second installment of the ‘Duel Digital Divide’ survey and report, which brought the issue of barriers to Web access for all Canadians to the attention of the federal government,” said Williamson.

Some of the larger RLT research projects partners have been the Conference Board of Canada, TL-NCE (The TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence) and various universities. Research in Learning Technologies provides funding for smaller projects such as locally generated research on community economic development and network technologies in communities.

Skills shortages
OLT partners with numerous community groups and not-for-profit organizations to provide services. Acting as a catalyst, OLT raises the awareness of the opportunities, challenges and benefits of technology-based learning. As part of HRDC, OLT often works with the disenfranchised, unemployed, people with disabilities, those in need of essential skills development and people living in rural or remote communities. Approximately 10 per cent of communities in the country have directly benefited from the 700 plus OLT funded projects.

Many Canadians who have been working in traditional resource-based industries (fishing, mining, lumber) where there have been large scale layoffs in recent years have been identified by OLT as missing basic skill sets required to make the transition into new job fields. Through adult education OLT and partner organizations help facilitate the transitions.

“The e-learning sector on a whole has experienced explosive growth. It is actually increasingly becoming a factor in human development, in the sense that those who have access to new technologies have access to new learning opportunities, new skills development opportunities which are most often sought after in a labour market,” said James Fulcher, special advisory on e-learning with the Skills and Learning Task Force for HRDC. “From my point of view there is a real potential here for the OLT to expand on what it is doing, taking into context that e-learning is a now a factor in human development.”

“The skills shortages identified by OLT are a huge problem for the country. We have seen shortages in a wide range of areas from technology-based fields to manufacturing. Canada has relied a lot on immigration to take up the slack in some of those areas, but we now know that there will be some serious shortages unless there are more transitions made,” said Williamson. “We are trying to have, with limited funding but a large partnership base, an impact on filling those shortages.”

To remain current with the ever-changing trends in technologies, OLT has created a multi-disciplinary body of individuals to advise, participate and assist in learning technology activities.

“We often look to our large network of experts on our advisory committee to provide advice and direction and through there own constituencies promote OLT projects,” said Williamson. “Many of our experts come from our strategic partnerships, others from the academic community, private and public sectors and not-for-profit organizations.”

“I think OLT has done a lot of useful work to support research and some very interesting work done with Community Learning Networks,” said Fulcher. “Their model that is being developed with communities is a successful model. It is not just moving technology into a community and saying, ‘here’s public internet access.’ They are actually building an integrated service around the internet providing assistance with things like e-literacy, matching employment service with potential jobs.” In 2001, the Office of Learning Technologies will provide $15.4 million in funding to projects from coast-to-coast-to-coast.

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